In a much-anticipated move, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nudged the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward to “two minutes to midnight” on Thursday, signaling what the group says is the closest the world has come to total destruction since 1953.
Founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists, the Bulletin was created to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear war, and today it is overseen by a board that includes 15 Nobel Laureates. The clock, now managed by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, was introduced in 1947, and over seven decades, the time to theoretical global catastrophe has been set as far away as 17 minutes, and as close as two minutes.
In a statement this week, the Bulletin’s president and chief executive, Rachel Bronson, attributed the change to a host of issues, including the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program, tensions between the U.S. and Russia, uncertainty surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, and the threat of climate change. “To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger — and its immediacy,” Bronson wrote in the statement.
While presented as a warning tool, critics of the Doomsday Clock question the decision-making that goes into setting it. The minute hand did not shift, for example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during which the U.S. and the Soviet Union narrowly avoided nuclear war.
Still, the clock has been inching closer to midnight since 2010, with President Trump’s support for nuclear weapons and his skepticism about climate change factoring into a half-minute jump in 2017. And as Bronson told Wired in December, “Many of our fears played themselves out in 2017. … A lot of our concerns were really borne out.”
Also in the news:
• Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences successfully created two genetically-identical long-tailed macaques in December, making them the first primates to be cloned using somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. SCNT is the same method of reproductive cloning that was used to create the first animal clone, Dolly the sheep, in 1996, as well as many different species of animals in the past two decades. The researchers believe this breakthrough in creating genetically identical primate models will accelerate biomedical research. (Motherboard)
• Air pollution, including that caused by the burning of fossil fuels in power plants and vehicles, kills as many as 3 million people every year, and research from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, published this week, suggests that foul air might also be negatively affecting the DNA of newborns. At the same time, a separate study published earlier this month concluded that curbing certain types of air pollution — which, ironically, helps to cool the planet — could result in additional global warming of up to 1 degree Celsius. (Environment International; Geophysical Research Letters)
• On Monday, President Trump placed a 30 percent tariff on solar equipment manufactured outside the U.S., confident that the move will bring manufacturing jobs back to the country. While some foreign companies have floated the idea of opening plants in the U.S., analysts are skeptical that the tariff — which will be in place for only four years and steadily decrease to 15 percent — will provide a big enough incentive. (Bloomberg)
• A review of more than 800 studies on the health effects of e-cigarettes delivered a mixed verdict on Tuesday. The review, mandated by Congress and carried out by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found that vaping is far less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes, and may even help smokers quit. But vaping too can be addictive, the new report warned, and there is “substantial evidence” that teenagers who start with e-cigarettes are at risk of moving on to tobacco. Moreover, e-cigarettes emit potentially toxic substances. The bottom line? “E-cigarettes cannot be simply categorized as either beneficial or harmful,” said David Eaton of the University of Washington, Seattle, chair of the committee that wrote the report. (New York Times)
• The Ring of Fire, the 25,000-mile chain of interconnected earthquake faults and volcanoes that rims the Pacific Ocean, has been startlingly active this week. Two volcanic eruptions — one in the Philippines, one in Japan — have occurred as well as an earthquake off the coast of Alaska and another near Jakarta, Indonesia, all since Monday. None of these were minor. The Alaska quake registered 7.9, for instance; the eruption in Japan killed one person and injured more than a dozen others, and in the Philippines, the clouds of ash and lava flows from Mount Mayon are expected to intensify. Geologists acknowledge that activity on the Ring of Fire, which accounts for 90 percent of the planet’s earthquakes, may be connected to stress that it is too early to tell. (Vox)
• And finally: A human jawbone found in a cave in Israel suggests that modern humans left the African continent much earlier than previously thought. In a paper published in Science on Thursday, researchers confirmed that the fragment, discovered in 2002, belonged to a person who lived at least 177,000 years ago. Up until now, it was thought that Homo sapiens didn’t depart for other continents until 40,000 years later. Israel Hershkovitz, a physical anthropologist and co-author of the study says the findings also suggest that the human species itself may have evolved earlier than previously thought. (Science)