Doomsday Clock Reveals How Nuclear War Would Decimate Civilization

The organization behind the Doomsday Clock has published a guide that details the potentially catastrophic consequences of a global nuclear war—which could kill hundreds of millions in hours—in what is a "wake-up call" for people around the world, the author told Newsweek.

The war in Ukraine has led to a significant rise in tensions between the West and Russia. And while experts are divided as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to use nuclear weapons, despite his threats about deploying them, the conflict's escalation has led to speculation about the potential eruption of a nuclear war.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic device designed to warn the public about how close humanity is to destroying itself with "dangerous technologies of our own making," such as nuclear weapons as well as those that are contributing to climate change.

The clock, which was created in 1947 and is maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine, has been reset 24 times, most recently in 2020 when the minute hand moved from two minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight.

In January 2022, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, which decides the clock's time, announced that the minute hand was staying at 100 seconds to midnight. The board said that Ukraine was a potential flashpoint in an "increasingly tense International security landscape." After Russia invaded the country in late February, the board condemned its actions.

On October 20, the Bulletin published an article titled "Nowhere to Hide: How a Nuclear War Would Kill You and Almost Everyone Else," which was authored by François Diaz-Maurin, the magazine's associate editor for nuclear affairs.

"Clearly, with the war in Ukraine, we were—and still are—concerned that the world could be sleepwalking into nuclear war," Diaz-Maurin told Newsweek. "As a magazine covering those risks since pretty much when nuclear weapons were created, we had a responsibility to do something. This article is a wake-up call from the Bulletin."

"The timing of this story could not have been more right," he continued. "Our story was published on Thursday, October 20. And we now know based on reporting by The New York Times, that Russian military leaders at that time were discussing the real possibility of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

"We will never know if Putin—or one of his advisers and military planners—ever read our feature story. But what I can tell you is that the piece was being read in Moscow in the very first minutes after it was published," Diaz-Maurin said.

A mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb
A stock image shows an illustration of a mushroom cloud created by a nuclear bomb. A nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. would very quickly result in a minimum of 360 million deaths around the world from the direct effects alone, according to the organization behind the Doomsday Clock. iStock

By detailing the potentially devastating consequences for humanity, the article was published to try to minimize the threat of such a war breaking out.

"If you are better informed about...the consequences of using nuclear weapons in a war, you are more likely not to go down that path," Diaz-Maurin said. "There is no small or acceptable use of a nuclear weapon. Any use would put the world into uncharted territory."

In the article, Diaz-Maurin wrote that hundreds or thousands of detonations would occur within minutes of each other in a nuclear war.

Given the destructive power of nuclear weapons, even a "limited" regional exchange between India and Pakistan—involving 100 15-kiloton warheads launched at urban areas—would result in 27 million direct deaths.

A global, all-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia, based on a scenario involving 4,400 100-kiloton weapons, would very quickly result in a minimum of 360 million deaths around the world from the direct effects alone.

Even though these figures are staggering, the article notes that these deaths would be only the beginning of a massive catastrophe that would affect not only the warring parties and their allies but the entire world.

Aside from the direct impacts of the bombs, a large-scale nuclear war would lead to widespread radioactive contamination and could spark long-term global climatic changes and subsequent collapse of societies.

For example, the numerous nuclear bomb explosions would lead to widespread fires across the world that would inject massive amounts of soot into the Earth's upper atmosphere. This would result in a nuclear winter—a period of prolonged climatic cooling—that would disrupt virtually all forms of life on Earth for several decades.

Two years after a nuclear war, the impacts on agricultural food systems would be so catastrophic that more than 5 billion people—over half of the world's population—could starve to death, research has indicated.

As Diaz-Maurin wrote, "There is nowhere to hide."