It is getting closer to midnight.
The group of scientists who orchestrate the Doomsday Clock, a symbol informing the public when Earth is facing imminent disaster, have moved its minute hand from three to two and a half minutes to 12.
It is the closest the “clock” has been to midnight since 1953, the year after the US and the former Soviet Union conducted competing tests of the hydrogen bomb.
The movement of the symbolic clock hands is decided by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is the first time the scientists have ever made a decision based on the words of one person – Donald Trump.
The organisation introduced the clock on the cover of its June 1947 edition, placing it at seven minutes to midnight. Since then, it has moved closer to midnight and farther away, depending on the board’s conclusions.
This year’s announcement was made by Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the bulletin. She was assisted by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, climate scientist and meteorologist David Titley, and Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the UN, Russia, Israel, India and other countries.
Bronson explained why the board included the 30-second mark in the measurement. She said it was an attention-catching signal that was meant to acknowledge “what a dangerous moment we’re in, and how important it is for people to take note.
“We’re so concerned about the rhetoric, and the lack of respect for expertise, that we moved it 30 seconds,” she said. “Rather than create panic, we’re hoping that this drives action.”
Writing in the New York Times, Titley and Krauss cited the increasing threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, as well as President Trump’s pledges to obstruct what they see as progress on both fronts, as reasons for moving the clock closer to midnight.
“Never before has the bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person,” they wrote. “But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.”
Composed of scientists, nuclear and climate experts, the bulletin’s board meets twice a year to discuss where the clock’s hands should fall in light of world events.
In the 1950s, the scientists feared nuclear annihilation. Since then, the board has begun to consider other threats, including climate change, compromised biosecurity and artificial intelligence.
There were crises that the clock was not quick enough to take into account. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis did not change the hands of the clock, which stood at seven minutes to midnight.
The end of the Cold War came as a relief to those who had lived in fear of nuclear annihilation for decades, and the minute hand slowly moved away from danger. In 1990, it was at 10 minutes to midnight. The next year, it was a full 17 minutes away, at the relatively undisturbing time of 11:43.
“The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away,” the bulletin said at the time.
Over the next two decades the clock slowly ticked back. Conflict between India and Pakistan, who tested nuclear weapons three weeks apart, had the clock at nine minutes to midnight in 1998. By 2007, fears about Iranian and North Korean nuclear capacity pushed it to 11:55.
By 2015, the scientists were back in a state of unmitigated concern, with the clock at three minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1984.
“Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” the bulletin said.
“World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.”
“These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth,” it added.
The clock is one of the rarest things available to scientists: an easily recognisable icon that can grab a passer-by with no scientific background. It’s exactly what the bulletin’s founders, Eugene Rabinowitch and Hyman Goldsmith, intended.