90 Seconds to Midnight

In 1947 an international group of researchers who had previously worked on the Manhattan Project began publishing a magazine titled the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Manhattan Project, a World War II research and development undertaking, created the world's first nuclear weapons, the infamous Fat Man and Little Boy, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The cover of the first edition of the bulletin featured a clock in the background, with the minute hand, at seven minutes before midnight. Although it looks like a regular clock, this is probably the most critical clock in human existence. The “Doomsday Clock”. It’s meant to represent how close we are to total obliteration by our own hands.

Since it was published in 1947, the bulletin has updated the location of the clock’s minute hand every year. It moves forward or backward depending on the different factors we are experiencing on Earth, like nuclear tension, global warming, and man-made pollution.

In 1947, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. In 1963, 12 minutes. In 1991, 17 minutes. But today, in 2023, we aren't 20 minutes away. We aren't 10, 5, or even 2 minutes away. We're 90 seconds away from midnight. 90 seconds from total annihilation by our very own hands.

Today, when discussing the destructive power of nuclear weapons or any other large-scale detonation, we tend to measure them by how much TNT is needed to produce an equivalent explosion. For example, Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, were, at the time, the most powerful and most destructive weapons ever made. Little Boy was a uranium bomb with a blast equal to more than 15 kilotons of TNT, while Fat Man, as its name suggests, was a more powerful plutonium bomb with a blast yield equating to over 21 kilotons of TNT.

The scariest thing about these bombs is that their explosions didn’t reach their full potential. Fat Man was jam-packed with about six and a half kilograms of plutonium. But when it detonated over the city of Nagasaki, only about one kilogram of that material actually fissioned, just 16% of its potential power. Little Boy was much worse. It contained over 64 kilograms of enriched uranium. But when dropped over Hiroshima, less than one kilogram of that uranium fissioned. That's a little over 1 percent.

But even though neither of these bombs lived up to their full potential, the fissioning of less than two kilograms of plutonium and uranium was enough to kill over 200,000 people. In a blink of an eye. Cities filled with people turned into ghost towns.

That was 1945. Since then, over 125,000 nuclear weapons have been made, most of which are much more powerful than Fat Man and Little Boy combined. In 1961, the Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb named ‘Tsar Bomba’, loosely translated as the ‘Emperor of Bombs’, over the remote Siberian wilderness. This bomb wasn’t just the equivalent of 15 thousand tons or 21 thousand tons of TNT, not even 100 thousand tons. It had a yield of over 50 million tons of TNT.

When the Tsar Bomba was detonated, the mushroom cloud from the explosion started in the troposhere, the layer of the atmosphere that we live in, straddled the stratosphere, and stretched far into the mesosphere. Its mushroom cloud was over 64 km high, that's more than seven Mount Everests stacked on top of each other. It could be seen from over 300 km away, and the shock wave from the blast broke window panes nearly 1,000 km away from the explosion.

The shock wave circled the entire planet three times before it finally died out. And this wasn't even the most potent version of the bomb imagined. Initially, Tsar Bomba was planned to be 100 megatons - the equivalent of 100 million tons of TNT. That idea was eventually quashed because a full 100-megaton explosion would have easily sent the world into a global nuclear winter.

But although it was never made, just the fact that the bomb was theorized and nearly became a reality is truly terrifying. Superimposing a 100-megaton explosion over major cities around the globe really puts the destruction into perspective. If 10 of these bombs were detonated over the world's most populated cities, the death toll would be beyond horrifying.

Detonating 10 bombs of that size on those specific cities would nearly almost as many deaths in one day as the combine d fatalities from every war in the 20th century. From just 10 of these bombs.

Today, in 2023, an estimated 12,500 warheads are on standby, waiting to be launched at any moment. And if, or when, these warheads are launched, it won't just be one. It won't be 10. It will be all of them.

If two countries with access to nuclear weapons end up in a conflict that escalates to the point where nukes are used, there's no reason for either side to hold back. Because if one side fires one nuke toward the other, why would the other side only send one back? There’s no fairness in war, after all.

The scariest part about this is that it doesn't even have to be a World War for the entire planet to be affected. Studies have been conducted on the idea of a regional nuclear war between Pakistan and India, two countries that possess nuclear weapons and are not the best of friends.

You might think the damage would be localized to that region, but the reality is quite the opposite. India and Pakistan combined have about 200 nukes. If all of these weapons were used and hit their intended targets, it's likely we’d see upward of 100 million deaths. In those two countries alone.
The fallout from these weapons, that is, the radiation that’s spread throughout the air after the bombs went off, would be enough to finish off most of the population of those countries if anyone was even alive after the initial impacts.

But that's only the beginning of the problem. The smoke and dust from these bombs will spread farther than India and Pakistan.

Nuclear fallout would make its way into the atmosphere, coating the planet in a layer of smoke and dust. This could block most of the Sun's rays from reaching our planet. Black rain would fall from the sky, polluted with radiation and dust, and plants would die because there would be no rain to grow and no Sun to photosynthesize.

Once there were no crops or livestock left to feed on, around one billion humans would die of starvation. And we haven't even accounted for the chaos and the battle for survival that such limited resources will cause.

This is the result when just two percent of the planet’s nuclear arsenal is fired under perfect circumstances. In 2008 at Oxford University, the Future of Humanity Institute published a paper on the odds of humanity facing a possible extinction-level event before 2100. They placed the odds that at least one billion people will die at the hands of nuclear weapons at 10%, and the odds of complete human extinction at 1%.

While that might not seem like a lot, it’s a 1 in 100 chance. To put into perspective just how likely that is, the odds of you dying in a car accident is 1 in 107. So it’s more likely that humans will be completely wiped out by nuclear weapons than it is that you will die in a car accident. Keep in mind there are around 1.5 billion cars in the world and only 12,500 Nukes.

Today, the Doomsday Clock stands at just 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to doomsday it’s ever been, primarily because of the mountain danger over the war in Ukraine. The war might seem localized at the moment. But what if Putin hits the proverbial red button? What happens if he starts losing, or keeps losing the war? Will he accept defeat, knowing that he has the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world in his arsenal?

If he does launch a nuke on Ukraine, how should the U.S. and other world powers react? If they retaliate, and the U.S. and Russia enter into a full-scale nuclear war with both sides throwing everything they have at each other, that would almost certainly be the end of human civilization.

On top of the massive number of nukes that would be dropped in the major cities across both countries, agricultural centers, hospitals, schools, and many more facilities would also be destroyed to ensure that both sides endure the most suffering.

Both sides know this isn't a game with a pause button. Once you pick up your controller, you can't put it back down. Once a nuclear warhead is confirmed to be in the air, the idea of a nuclear holocaust instantly switches from thought experiment to reality.

In the book Reasons and Persons, author Derek Parfit poses the following question. Compare these three outcomes.
A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world's population, or
A nuclear war that kills 100% of the world's population.

On the surface, the second scenario is obviously worse than the first, and the third worse than the second. But really, how much worse is the third scenario compared to the second? If we find ourselves in a full-scale nuclear war, is it even worth trying to survive?

Because in the end, if you survive, No one will be there waiting for you. The global nuclear winter that would come from this would leave almost every major city uninhabitable for years to come. You will have to live in hiding for the rest of your life. You will never be able to watch the sun rise, smell the roses, or experience the beauty of nature.

The 1983 movie "War Games" is set in America in the midst of the Cold War. It discusses many possible outcomes of nuclear wars of various magnitudes. In it, there’s a quote that says, "The only winning move is not to play." And I find that that really fits the situation. The only way to survive and come out on top at the end of the day is not to play the game in the first place. Because should you participate, the clock ticks over to midnight.