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Unlocking climate change secrets in the frozen north

Some of the most important new research on the subject is being done in Svalbard, a collection of Norwegian islands just 800 miles from the North Pole
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World leaders may be negotiating what to do about climate change in Paris, but some of the most important new research on the subject is being done about as far away from civilization as you can get, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.

Svalbard is a collection of Norwegian islands just 800 miles from the North Pole. One young American climate scientist has come here to try to unlock some of the secrets of climate change that have been frozen into this landscape for tens of thousands of years.

The 22-year-old Californian, Sarah Strand, won't see the sun again until mid-February. The polar night has set in and darkness isn't the only thing to worry about up here.

This is polar bear country, where Strand and her Swedish colleague Norbert Pirk, are required by law to pack protection.

The bears are more of a threat in summer when the melt-back of their sea-ice hunting ground has made them more desperate for food -- even to the point of attacking a research boat.

But they're still a threat in winter and it's in winter that this research must be done.

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"It definitely has to be running if we're going to get any data," said Strand.

Every day Strand comes out here to check instruments that are measuring a worrying trend -- the release of greenhouse gases, which scientists used to think were safely locked into the frozen ground.

"The main thing we are looking at is the gas exchange with ground carbon dioxide, methane," said Strand. "But then we are comparing that to other parameters that we are measuring here."

And the more those greenhouse gases are released -- even from frozen places like this -- the more warming there will be.

There are concerns of that, yes, especially with the permafrost thawing, that there is now old carbon that is becoming available again to possibly be released into the atmosphere. "We're trying to shine some light on this," Pirk said laughing.

Strand has been here a year-and-a-half, working in these conditions because the arctic is ironically - and worryingly -- where the Earth appears to be warming most.

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They call it "arctic amplification," because the arctic is warming sooner, faster and more than anywhere else. Why that is happening and what that means for the rest of us is why this little speck in the arctic has become the major center of climate research.

"You can't just measure one thing and say, 'I found climate change!'" said Strand. "It's more about having all these monitoring projects and understanding how the system is working."

Another American -- Hannah Miller -- a 21-one year old from Vermont -- is here too. She came here to study how glaciers are shrinking and their melt-water is contributing to sea-level rise. Climate change decisions, she says, have to be based on science.

"The frustration comes in when climate change deniers use any of the uncertainties to say that your argument is false. You can have uncertainties and still have solid argument," said Miller.

Miller and Strand have joined a small, dedicated and brave community in Svalbard. It's cutting-edge science up there on the edge of the world.

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