SCIENCE
01/18/2013 08:02 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2013

'Doomsday Clock' 2013: Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists Sets Clock At 5 Minutes Before Midnight

The Internet is abuzz with news of the 2013 "Doomsday Clock," as alarmed netizens scramble to learn what this apocalyptic time-keeper is and what it might signal.

"What is this Doomsday Clock 2013 I just saw on top of Yahoo news?" one concerned cybernaut asked on Yahoo! Answers. "That just scared me a little."

The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to gauge "the state of existential global threats to civilization," has actually been around for quite some time.

Fox News explains:

The Doomsday Clock came into being in 1947 as a way for atomic scientists to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons. That year, the Bulletin set the time at seven minutes to midnight, with midnight symbolizing humanity's destruction. By 1949, it was at three minutes to midnight as the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated. In 1953, after the first test of the hydrogen bomb, the doomsday clock ticked to two minutes until midnight.

The year 1991 was the Doomsday Clock's best. As the decades-long Cold War drew to a close, the timepiece was set to a relatively cheerful 11:43.

Since then, optimism has visibly waned.

On Monday, scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock will be set at 5 minutes to midnight this year. As UPI notes, the clock has been set consistently at 11:55 since 2007 (except for 2010 and 2011, when it was moved back to 6 minutes.)

doomsday clock
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientist Lawrence Krauss, who is co-chair of the bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, said the latest clock setting is "not good" news.

"Exactly what time the clock is set to is less important than the trends we can observe -- whether we are moving toward or away from disaster," Krauss wrote for Slate.com, adding that the "growth of potentially destructive biotechnology and the threat of climate change" has become as much a threat to civilization as nuclear weapons.

"Last January, the clock was moved forward one minute closer to midnight, in part because, while there was progress in several key areas, hopes that that Barack Obama would drive progress in climate change and nuclear proliferation were not met. This year, in large part because of continued lack of progress, the clock remains at five minutes to midnight -- which is not good," Krauss continued.

In what has been described as "an unusual move," the bulletin's board members have written an open letter to President Obama this year. As a statement on the bulletin's website notes, the letter lauds Obama's work in nuclear security and praises his support of renewable energy -- but it also urges the president to be more active in addressing climate change on the global stage.

"2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, marked by devastating drought and brutal storms," the letter states. "These extreme events are exactly what climate models predict for an atmosphere laden with greenhouse gases."

Despite the gloom, the scientists insist that they are hopeful that the Obama administration -- and America as a whole -- can make progress in the coming years, perhaps even turning back the clock one day.

"We have as much hope for Obama's second term in office as we did in 2010, when we moved back the hand of the Clock after his first year in office," Robert Socolow, chair of the bulletin's board, said. "This is the year for U.S. leadership in slowing climate change and setting a path toward a world without nuclear weapons."

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