The Doomsday Clock Is at 90 Seconds to Midnight, but What Does That Even Mean?


Jan. 24 2024, Published 11:15 a.m. ET

The Doomsday Clock at 90 Seconds to Midnight.
Source: Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has announced that the Doomsday Clock is at 90 seconds to midnight. Following the January 2024 news that the clock would be staying in such a dire spot, many naturally wanted to learn more about this clock, and what its various measurements actually signal.

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Most people are clear, at least on the surface, that 90 seconds to midnight sounds pretty ominous, but what does that actually mean, and what will happen if the Doomsday Clock actually gets to midnight? Here's everything we know about the measure.

The Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight on a phone screen.
Source: Getty Images
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What does 90 seconds to midnight mean?

The Doomsday Clock is designed to measure how close the planet it is to global catastrophe. The closer the clock is to midnight, in theory, the closer the world is to erupting into some sort of global disaster. 90 seconds to midnight is the closest the clock has ever been to midnight. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the group behind the clock, was formed in 1945 by Albert Einstein and members of the Manhattan Project.

Its original purpose was obviously to assess the threat of nuclear warfare, but since then, it has evolved into a barometer of more general calamity, all of it man-made. The nonprofit organization first set the clock at 90 seconds to midnight in January of 2023, and they announced in January 2024 that they would be leaving that measurement in place for 2024.

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In announcing their decision, the Bulletin cited several factors, including the possibility of nuclear conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the worsening climate crisis, and the negative possibilities of generative AI.

"Last year, we expressed amplified concern by moving the clock to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been," said Rachel Bronson, CEO of the Bulletin group.

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What happens when the Doomsday Clock hits midnight?

The exact explanation for what were to happen if the clock hit midnight is a little vague.

According to the Clock's official website, "The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet."

The Clock would likely hit midnight in the event of an actual global catastrophe. Nuclear war was the most obvious threat when the Clock was first created, and if one country were to launch nuclear weapons at another, especially in a scenario where the other country also had nuclear weapons, that would obviously move the clock to midnight.

Catastrophe can be less obvious in other arenas. Climate change, for example, is slow-moving crisis that is unlikely to ever hit a single breaking point. Ultimately, though, the whole system is completely made up. It's a useful reminder that we have to be good stewards of the planet where we all live, but if they ever set the clock to midnight, it will be because they think it's appropriate.

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