The Doomsday Clock:  A Historical Timeline To Armageddon

The Doomsday Clock: A Historical Timeline To Armageddon

by Matt Collins

(Image courtesy of Alaska Native News)

The labcoat-wearing scientists reveal their newest invention before a crowd of shocked reporters—and the Doomsday Clock is born.

It's minimalist as clocks go. With just a few minute markers on a blank circular face, a minute hand ticking down the last few moments to midnight. But this simple clock bears a whole world of meaning since it signifies the ever-present threat of destruction in the nuclear age.

It's been over 75 years since The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists first unveiled the clock. And while most people might doubt we're living in the nuclear age right now, the threat of nuclear Armageddon is as accurate as ever.

As I write this, North Korea is currently testing new nuclear weapons. Vladimir Putin has issued several nuclear threats since invading continental Europe last year, and China is actively growing its stockpile of nuclear warheads. None of this is news to the average American; we've grown accustomed to these threats.

But we're still closer to the brink of destroying civilization than we've ever been before—and the Doomsday Clock exists to remind us of that fact.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    How the Doomsday Clock Came to Be

  • 02

    Multiple Types of Doomsdays

  • 03

    A Ticking Time Bomb

  • 04

    Practical Doomsday Protection

  • 05

    Countdown to Midnight

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions About the Doomsday Clock

How the Doomsday Clock Came to Be

The detonation of nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put a swift end to the Second World War.

But they also inspired a whole new world of questions about atomic weapons, atomic power, and the dawn of a potentially cataclysmic new age. This upswelling of public interest inspired scientists from the Manhattan Project (which created those nuclear weapons) to create the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This nonprofit publishes an academic journal covering the potential of these new weapons.

From the beginning, the Bulletin was explicitly created for the everyman. Issues are written in plain English to educate as many interested individuals as possible to spread awareness and understanding of these devastating weapons.

In 1947, two years after its creation, the Bulletin unveiled the Doomsday Clock. This clock was created to represent the risk of an all-out nuclear war, with the hand adjusted to reflect the current climate and midnight representing doomsday.

(Image courtesy of Chicago Tribune)

And in the three-quarters of a century since then, the Doomsday Clock has endured as an icon—and a sober representation of the unspeakable danger posed by these weapons. It has succeeded where ongoing research and academic publications have failed to reach a global audience.

But it's not strictly a "when will the world end timer."

In the words of Eugene Rabinowitch, one of the clock's creators:

“The Bulletin's Clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect fundamental changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

The clock was a simple analogy that even schoolchildren could understand. But it also served to communicate the situation's urgency—with the countdown starting at just 7 minutes to midnight.

Multiple Types of Doomsdays

The Doomsday Clock has always been closely associated with the risk of nuclear war—but that's not the only kind of Doomsday it was meant to monitor.

The clock's adjustments have also accounted for factors like climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, and bioterrorism. At each meeting, scientists from the Bulletin work to account for these factors, gauging the overall risk of any potentially civilization-ending cataclysm.

That may sound broad in scope, but it's important to acknowledge how interrelated each of these different issues can be. Climate change could affect billions, stoking conflicts along contested borders and increasing the resulting risk of a nuclear exchange. Bioterrorism and biological warfare can create a new plague … engineering the next pandemic and stoking conflict.

Nuclear weapons don't exist in a vacuum, after all. They're weapons of war controlled by the politicians in charge. Those politicians, whether elected, appointed, or otherwise, are accountable to the culture and the pressures their country faces.

Caption: Russia’s nuclear weapons mobilized in Belarus (Image courtesy of DW )

The Clock is still primarily driven by nuclear weapons—with new treaties bringing us back from the brink and growing nuclear stockpiles pushing us ever closer to the edge.

Let's look at how the clock has inched closer to Doomsday over the years.

A Ticking Time Bomb

The Doomsday Clock is assessed once a year during the annual conference of The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists. The hands may be adjusted to reflect material changes in the overall threat of a civilization-ending collapse. If the situation hasn't materially changed, the clock will remain unchanged.

It has been adjusted a total of 25 times since its inception. Only 8 of those moves have taken it backward—indicating a reduction in the threat of a nuclear apocalypse—while 17 have taken the clock forward and closer to a potential conflagration.

(Image courtesy of Patch )

Here's a quick rundown of each adjustment since the Doomsday Clock's inception after World War II:

  • 1947: 7 minutes to midnight. Despite the end of the second world war, tensions still ran high. The Yalta Conference of 1945 established a postwar peace that would be nuanced at best. But tensions soon escalated between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a Cold War in the works. The mere existence of nuclear weapons and their use to end the Second World War transformed global power dynamics. So it's hardly unreasonable that the clock started so close to midnight.

  • 1949: Cut from 7 down to 4 minutes to midnight. In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested the RDS-1, their first atomic weapon. Its mere existence doubled the number of states equipped with nuclear weapons, doubling the risk of nuclear war and nearly halving what time remained on the Doomsday Clock.

  • 1953: Cut from 3 down to 2 minutes to midnight. The world's first thermonuclear devices were tested as a part of Operation Ivy in November of 1952, with the Soviets completing their own Joe 4 test in August of 1953. Just 8 years after a pair of low-yield nuclear weapons leveled Japan's infrastructure and essentially ended the second world war, thermonuclear weapons had become a part of the equation. At 120 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock was closer in 1953 than at any other time until 2020, almost 70 years later.

  • 1960: Boosted from 2 minutes to 7 minutes to midnight: The earliest years of nuclear armament saw massive stockpiling on both sides, but it also came with a rapid evolution in understanding atomic weapons. Soviet and American forces took steps to reduce the risk of "massive retaliation." And they avoided confrontation through tough times in various near-term crises. The Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs also allowed scientists from both sides to confer and realize that their enemies weren't all monstrous villains. As a result, the clock was scaled back substantially.

  • 1963: Boosted from 7 to 12 minutes to midnight: After the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed, the administrators of the Doomsday Clock became substantially more optimistic about the state of affairs. That is, until …

  • 1968: Cut from 12 to 7 minutes to midnight: This substantial cut reflects a sharp change in global affairs. Up until this point, From America's escalating involvement in the Vietnam War to the Indo-Pakistan War of the same era, along with new nations (France and China) acquiring and testing nuclear weapons, several different causes contribute to this sharp cut.

  • 1969: Boosted from 7 to 10 minutes to midnight: Every nation except for Israel, India, and Pakistan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  • 1972: Boosted from 10 to 12 minutes to midnight: The Soviet Union and the United States agreed to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), reducing the potential threat of global nuclear annihilation.

  • Brezhnev and Nixon signing SALT treaty (Image courtesy of Atomic Archive )

  • 1974: Cut from 12 to 9 minutes to midnight: After the SALT II talks stall, India tests its first nuclear weapon (Smiling Buddha), and America and/Soviet Union both test their first Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs, missiles that could carry multiple nuclear payloads per missile) the risk is ratcheted back up.

  • 1980: Cut from 9 to 7 minutes to midnight: As the Soviet-Afghan war heats up, SALT II talks fail, and the US Senate refuses to ratify the agreement.

  • 1981: Cut from 7 to 4 minutes to midnight: 1980 was a pivotal year that saw US President Jimmy Carter withdraw the United States from the Moscow Olympics while arguing that the only way to end the Cold War was to win it. Meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq war surges, while China tests atmospheric nuclear warheads and human rights deteriorate worldwide.

  • 1984: Cut from 4 to 3 minutes to midnight: The Soviet-Afghan War further intensified the Cold War, while the Soviet boycott of the Olympic Games and Ronald Reagan's push to win the cold war by ramping up efforts all escalated tensions. It's important to remember that the Doomsday Clock is subjective and based primarily on preceding events. In other words—they had no idea what was coming next.

  • 1988: Boosted from 3 to 6 minutes to midnight: In December of 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which improved relations and relaxed tensions across the board.

  • 1 990: Boosted from 6 to 10 minutes to midnight: The fall of the Berlin Wall signified that the reunification of Germany might soon be underway—and with it, the end of the Cold War.

  • (Image courtesy of CNBC )

  • 1991: Boosted from 10 to 17 minutes to midnight: This was the largest single boost in the Doomsday Clock's history and the farthest it's ever been from midnight. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the approval of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the threat of nuclear annihilation was believed to have dissipated.

  • 1995: Cut from 17 to 14 minutes to midnight: The threat of post-Cold-War Soviet proliferation persists. Weapons, as money and brainpower are still pouring into the sector.

  • 1998: Cut from 14 to 9 minutes to midnight: India and Pakistan simultaneously test their nuclear weapons in a recreation of the standoff between US and USSR forces. As the reduction of nuclear stockpiles slows, tensions begin to escalate.

  • 2002: Cut from 9 to 7 minutes to midnight: Various treaties begin to fall apart as global disarmament slows. Roughly a year after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia struggles to find its footing in the world.

  • 2007: Cut from 7 to 5 minutes to midnight: The clock is further reduced in the mid-2000s due to North Korea's first nuclear weapons tests in 2006, combined with Iran's stated intentions to develop a nuclear device, along with the existence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia.

  • (Image courtesy of Reuters )

  • 2010: Boosted from 5 to 6 minutes to midnight: Global consensus shifted towards better controls with the NEW START agreement ratified by the US and Russia. This and the United Nations Carbon Change Conference created the greatest reduction in the Doomsday Clock in over a decade.

  • 2012: Cut from 6 to 5 minutes to midnight: As the reduction in global nuclear stockpiles grinds to a halt, the Doomsday Clock is again ticked closer to midnight.

  • 2015: Cut from 5 to 3 minutes to midnight: The failure to address global climate change combined with the problem of nuclear waste and the rapid modernization of nuclear weapons add up to a reduction in the Doomsday Clock.

  • 2017: Cut from 3 to 2.5 minutes to midnight: The election of Donald Trump, the implications of his comments on nuclear weapons, and the potential for nuclear war with Russia all send shockwaves through the global political ecosystem.

  • 2018: Cut from 2.5 to 2 minutes to midnight: As the US and Soviet Union continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals,

  • 2020: Cut from 2 to 100 seconds to midnight: With the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty ending and escalating tensions between the US and Iran, scientists from the Bulletin concluded that the world was in "the most dangerous situation humanity has ever faced." As a result, the countdown was reduced so that it could only be measured in seconds, where it would remain for the next 3 years. Doomsday Clock 2022 and 2021 stayed the same.

  • 2023: Cut from 100 to 90 seconds to midnight: As Russia's invasion of Ukraine ground to a screeching halt, Vladimir Putin's rhetoric escalated with a new barrage of nuclear threats and statements. Combined with ongoing nuclear testing in states like North Korea and attacks on nuclear power plants in Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl have brought the Doomsday Clock as close as it's ever been to midnight.

As you can see, we've been inching closer and closer to Doomsday for almost the entirety of the clock's history. The early treaties of the 1960s and the collapse of the Soviet Union both served to briefly de-escalate tensions. But the clock has surged closer to midnight in the aftermath and is now closer than ever—at just 90 seconds to midnight.

Worst of all, this grim assessment is fair, given the circumstances.

So how can you prepare for the moment the clock strikes midnight?

Practical Doomsday Protection

In past articles, we've examined how a nuclear war might happen and which areas would most likely survive the attack. While countless variables could influence a potential doomsday, you can still take a few basic steps to protect yourself and your family from catastrophe.

The first piece of gear you'll want to consider is a gas mask if you don't already have one. A full-face respirator like the CM-6M protects each family member from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. Combine it with the right filter (like an NBC-77 SOF), and you'll have a tool to safely navigate the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, reactor meltdown, dirty bomb, or bio-weapon attack.

The CM-6M features a wide, panoramic visor with dual ports for gas 40mm gas mask filters, an integrated hydration system, and a wide range of customizable accessories. It's an easy, practical choice for any adult, with a shelf life of 20 years. For smaller children, we recommend something like the MD-1 gas mask instead.

Next up is a practical detection tool since radiation would be a definite threat in a nuclear conflict. We recommend the Geiger-2 since it uses the same standard Geiger-Muller tube as military-issue dosimeters. It also has an integrated LCD screen to help you navigate various features and settings. You can use the Geiger-2 to set limits on daily exposure or monitor exposure over time, and it's an outstanding tool that's as easy to use as your iPhone.

And finally, we must recommend potassium iodide tablets.

These will be essential in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange or in the event of a reactor meltdown. You're flooding your system with safe potassium iodide by taking one of these tablets. As a result, your body won't absorb the dangerous Iodine-131 isotopes produced by those events. I-131 can concentrate in the thyroid gland, causing cancer. These pills help prevent that from happening.

Countdown to Midnight

The Doomsday Clock remains just as sobering and compelling today as it was at its inception in 1947.

Compressing a world of politics, culture, and technology into a simple clock showing the time of day has reminded us just how close we are to Armageddon—and it celebrates the crucial peacetime decisions that take us back from the brink.

Instead of publishing a long-winded journal or evaluation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives us the Doomsday Clock and, with it, a message that transcends language and understanding.

While World War II has long since faded into memory, and most people see the threat of nuclear war as remote, the clock stands closer than it's ever been to midnight. With an ongoing war in Ukraine and China's continued aggression towards Taiwan, it's important to remember that nuclear weapons are an ever-present threat… and that their use could instantly transform our world.

It's important to keep an eye on this live clock. So be on the lookout for next January's update.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Doomsday Clock

What is the Doomsday Clock?
What is the Doomsday Clock right now?
What happens if the Doomsday Clock reaches midnight?
How does the Doomsday Clock work?
Where is the Doomsday Clock located?
What is 90 seconds to midnight?
What organization oversees the Doomsday Clock?