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Nuclear War Now - The Doomsday Clock Explained

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Nuclear War Now

As a species, just how close are we to global nuclear war now? Is there a way we can know, at a glance, how far from the world is from nuclear Armageddon? In a way, yes. It’s called The Doomsday Clock, and it is a symbolic clock face representing a countdown to a catastrophe of global proportions. It’s about how close we are to destroying our civilisation with dangerous technologies of our own making.

With 12 o’clock – midnight – being the aforementioned catastrophe, the clock counts backward as the risk to global security lessens. For example, 11:59pm would represent some very tense moments, while at 11:50pm tensions would be somewhat thawed. The Doomsday clock is not updated in real time however, rather a team called the Science and Security Board at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a global security magazine, meet biannually to discuss and update the clock.

History of the Doomsday Clock

The origin of the clock stems from scientists working on the famous Manhattan Project during World War Two. Since then, the clock has been accurately shown on the cover of every Bulletin magazine. The project was designed to symbolise global danger, rather than the seesaw of power that exists between superpowers. To quote the co-founder,

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

Being first set at 11:53pm in 1947, the clocked edged closer to midnight as the Soviet Union began testing nuclear devices and ushering in the idea of mutually assured destruction. Reaching 11:58pm in 1953 and remaining here for seven years, this was the closest to midnight the clock has ever been. The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved quickly enough that there was no time to update, though this is widely considered to be the closest we have ever come to nuclear war.

During the early 1960s, cooperation and test ban treaties were reflected in a ten minute change, setting the time back as far as 11:48pm, before tensions arose again surrounding the Vietnam and Indo-Pakistani wars. China and France also acquired weapons and thus the clock was adjusted to 11:53pm once again.

Throughout the Cold War, the time gradually moved toward midnight once again, which reflected the overall feeling of impending doom that was common during this period. But the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain raised and global tensions eased with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to this, the time was set back as far as 11:43pm, the lowest ever. This was the year 1991, and things seemed pretty good.

The Doomsday Clock Today

At the time of this article in 2014, the time sits at 11:55pm, just three minutes shy of its highest setting to date and five shy of the end of the world as we know it. In the twenty three years since 1991, military spending has increased phenomenally, India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament continues to falter, and NATO stands off against Russia over missile defense systems, among other things.

Furthermore, North Korea generates its own tension throughout the world with various nuclear tests, and Iran has ambitions of its own that remain unclear. Around 2010, some progress was made to reduce the stockpiles of weapons through international cooperation, and the doomsday clock also began to reflect global climate change as a serious threat to human civilisation as well. Since then, cooperation and political action seem to have stalled somewhat on both issues.

Nuclear War Now
Credit: morguefile.com

The Doomsday Clock Tomorrow

What does the future hold, and will we see a step back on the clock in the coming years? It’s difficult to say. Tensions remain high in the Middle East and Ukraine especially, missile defense systems that can destabilise the doctrine of mutually assured destruction through nullification are becoming increasingly common. Terrorism continues to be a threat in this arena, especially the risk of stolen or missing weapons falling into the wrong hands. Likewise, scientists continue to demonstrate evidence of potentially irreversible climate change that threatens the way we live and grow food, especially in coastal areas.

Yet there is still cause for optimism. Technology continues to evolve exponentially, and mankind seems to have an infinite reservoir of innovation to draw from. The growth of the internet and communication exposes more people every day to knowledge and togetherness they would otherwise not have access to, which helps to foster understanding of one another. Though it may seem the opposite at times, many political figures and wealthy individuals have the best interests of the people at heart, and collaborate to calm the waters of international relations. Hopefully we can see the Doomsday Clock set back on the shoulders of these ideals, so the threat of nuclear war now can be a part of our history, not our future.

The Doomsday Clock
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