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"Take action" or face a grim future, warns climate scientist after a year locked in Arctic ice

Researchers finish largest Arctic expedition
Researchers conclude largest Arctic expedition 03:25

Johannesburg, South Africa — A massive ship called the RV Polarstern spent 389 days drifting slowly across the Arctic, trapped in ice. It was a scientific mission on an unprecedented scale, and the people who took part say their findings should serve as a warning that if action isn't taken, humans in every corner of the world will pay the price.

Just before she set sail more than a year ago, Rhode Island native Dr. Alison Fong told CBS News that she and her colleagues on the Polarstern were "looking at creating a whole picture of what the Arctic is going to do in the coming years." 

Scientists haul a sample of ice from the Arctic Ocean as part of research into the effects of climate change on the sensitive region as their vessel, the RV Polarstern, waits behind them.  Alfred Wegener Insititute / Lianna Evans Nixon

The picture that emerged from their makeshift labs-on-ice and high-tech equipment is not a pretty one. It is devastating proof, the scientists say, of a dying Arctic Ocean, where ice-free summers could become a reality in just decades due to manmade greenhouse gases warming the planet

U.S. allies welcome Biden's pledge to tackle climate crisis 03:06

"As scientists, I think we need to be more outspoken about the crisis that we see in front of us," Fong told CBS News. "We know that what we have done is caused an increase in temperature and carbon dioxide on Earth, and that causes warming, and that warming is causing the melting of both the north and the south. And the loss of this ice, both in the north and the south, is causing major changes to the way the climate functions." 

Scientists say it's fueling intensified wildfires in the U.S., stronger hurricanes, and more extreme floods and drought around the world.  

"A Climate In Crisis" explores wildfires, hurricanes and the science behind them 35:51

The research team braved polar bears, days of complete darkness and isolation for months on end. In addition to the research conducted during the mission, they also brought samples of ice back home for further study.

But the world they returned to after more than a year locked in the ice looked very different. They left dry land before anyone had heard of COVID-19, and then stepped foot back on solid ground last month amid a pandemic.   

"Some people think that perhaps because of this focus on the global pandemic, we also can't address the issues of climate and global warming. But they're not exclusive," said Fong. "We're trying to do things. But the reality is, trying is not enough anymore. We must take action."  

Researcher Dr. Alison Fong peers through the Arctic Sea ice during a year-long mission aboard the RV Polarstern to evaluate the impact of climate change on the Arctic. Alfred Wegener Insititute / Lianna Evans Nixon

In part, that action boils down to what climatologists and environmental campaigners have been urging for years: producing clean energy, recycling, re-purposing and consuming less.   

"But on the other level, we need to speak out and influence those who are in positions of power so that they recognize that there is a reason to choose something different than what we have chosen over the last 50 to 100 years," said Fong. "The choices we need to make about how we sustain humanity must be different."  

She believes that it will take different choices on that scale, at the national and international level, to help halt the damage to our warming world. 

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