Doomsday Clock moves closest to apocalypse than ever before, at 90 seconds to midnight

In 2023, Bulletin scientists cite ‘unprecedented danger’ amid war in Ukraine, concerns over climate change

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced on Jan. 24 that the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved to 90 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been to apocalypse in the three-quarters of a century the Clock has been set. 

In making the unprecedented move, the Bulletin cited nuclear threats from Russian president Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine, as well as global carbon dioxide emissions hitting another record high, the risk of biological threats and global disinformation. 

“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” said Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “It’s a decision our experts do not take lightly.”

Founded by a group of scientists in Chicago in the wake of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the Bulletin meets every year to determine how much metaphorical time we have to avert catastrophe for humankind.

Over the past 76 years, the hands of the clock have moved both backward and forward, according to whether steps were taken to address potentially civilization-ending threats, including climate change and nuclear war.

"This is the closest the Doomsday Clock has ever been to midnight," said University of Chicago Prof. Daniel Holz, who co-chairs the board that sets the clock time every year. "Between a potential nuclear war over Ukraine, accelerating climate catastrophes, and democracies worldwide under siege, we believe that civilization is in unprecedented danger. We all need to take action to move us away from the brink, and turn back the Clock."

Previously, the closest the clock had been to midnight was in 2020 when the Bulletin set the hands of the clock at 100 seconds to midnight, moving it forward from two minutes. 

“Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high,” wrote the Bulletin in its statement. 

The statement noted that the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States, called New START, stands in jeopardy as negotiations have been disrupted by the military action in Ukraine.

The Bulletin also cited a lack of action globally to curb carbon dioxide emissions and multiple climate disasters around the world, including devastating floods in Pakistan and extreme temperatures in many countries that led to drought conditions and food insecurity.

‘Make the world safer’

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was created by a group of concerned Manhattan Project scientists, many based at the University of Chicago, shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two years later, in 1947, artist and Bulletin member Martyl Langsdorf created the iconic Doomsday Clock to signal how close humanity was to self-destruction.

Today, the Doomsday Clock is located at the Bulletin offices in the Keller Center, home to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. In addition to Holz, current University of Chicago-affiliated members of the Bulletin include treasurer Micho Ceko, the chief operating officer and senior associate dean of business operations at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy; board of sponsors member and science and security board member Robert Rosner, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago; and governing board member Melissa Harris, also an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago.

Though it was first created in response to nuclear weapons, the clock reckoning now includes climate change and “disruptive technologies,” such as bio- and cybersecurity.

However, the Bulletin has always emphasized that the clock is not intended to make people fearful, but rather to spur them to action. The full statement lists a number of actions needed to make the world safer, and urges people to press their governments for action.

“There is no time to waste,” said Bronson.

The full statement can be read on the Bulletin’s site.