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‘Doomsday Clock’ creeps closer to midnight than it ever has in history. Scientists call world affairs ‘highly unstable.’

The Doomsday Clock (John Loach/Flickr)

Calling world affairs “highly unstable,” scientists on Thursday moved the fateful minute hand of the Doomsday Clock another 20 seconds closer to midnight, signifying that humanity is more perilously near global catastrophe than any other time in recent history.

The metaphorical clock is now set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has come to hitting the final hour — a symbol of world annihilation — since its inception by the University of Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., scientists with the Bulletin cited recent military actions between the United States and Iran, an urgent need for addressing climate change and a rise in “cyber-enabled information warfare” as reasons for their dire forecast.

“We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds — not hours, or even minutes,” said Rachel Bronson of the University of Chicago, who serves as president and CEO of the Bulletin. “It is the closest to doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency — an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”

The foreboding timepiece was designed by Bulletin scientists as a harbinger of the state of international affairs, with the minute hand shifting toward or away from “doomsday” based on man-made threats to safety and security. For the first few decades, the time was based solely on nuclear threats, but in recent years climate change and technological threats weighed heavily in the decision.

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Even at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the minute hand was set at two minutes to midnight; the clock has never come this close to approaching the end.

The Bulletin was established in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs the United States used against Japan, weaponry that would later ignite the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

“It’s very much a Chicago story,” Robert Rosner, University of Chicago professor and chair of the science and security board of the Bulletin, said in a telephone interview. “It’s one of the earliest examples of when scientists have come to terms with what they created. I would say the Bulletin was the very first organized attempt to come to terms with the consequences of scientific invention.”

While the visual image of a clock might be simple, Rosner said the experts determining each shift of the minute hand take the decision very seriously, critically evaluating the state of international events, climate threats and how technology impacts safety and security. The Bulletin’s science and security board — which includes scientists and other experts on climate change, military affairs and technology — meets twice a year to discuss international events, and resets the minute hand accordingly.

The iconic clock is kept at the Bulletin’s headquarters at the U. of C.

“Most people don’t have the time to think through the consequences of actions taken by governments,” Rosner said. “This is a synthesis, a look at the big picture: Are we safe? Are we safer than before? Or not?”

He added that these experts are nonpartisan and the choice to move the hand of the clock is never politically motivated.

The minute hand has been reset about two dozen times since the clock’s inception, marking moments of calamity as well as indicators of peace and prosperity: In 1991 following the Cold War’s end, the minute hand was rewound to 17 minutes, the furthest it’s ever been from the fatal hour.

The last time change was in 2018, when the minute hand crept 30 seconds toward midnight, resting just two minutes shy of the end of the world.

Tick tock.

Some key moments in Doomsday Clock history

1947: Seven minutes to midnight — The Doomsday Clock is created. Chicago-area artist Martyl Langsdorf, who married a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, designed the original image for the first cover of the Bulletin.

1949: Three minutes to midnight — The Soviet Union successfully tests its atomic bomb.

1953: Two minutes to midnight — the United States and the Soviet Union test their first thermonuclear weapons. “The hands of the clock of doom move again,” wrote Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch, a University of Illinois professor. “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western Civilization.”

1998: Nine minutes to midnight — India and Pakistan stage nuclear weapons tests three weeks apart. The United States and Russia “maintain 7,000 warheads ready to fire at each other within 15 minutes.”

2007: Five minutes to midnight — For the first time, climate change is taken into account; previous decisions were based solely on nuclear threats.

2015: Three minutes to midnight — The scientists urge actions to cap greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear disarmament, as well as safe and secure nuclear waste storage.

2018: Two minutes to midnight — U.S. and Russia continue military exercises along NATO borders, tensions rise over the South China Sea and nuclear weapons arsenals stockpile in Pakistan and India. Misuse of information technology and “vulnerability of democracies to disinformation” are also taken into account.

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© 2020 the Chicago Tribune