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How Much Ice Is Left In The Arctic?

This story was filed by CBS News London producer Steve Berriman.

It's no longer a radical thought that the Earth's atmosphere is heating up, with potentially catastrophic consequences for all those living on our planet.

For decades, a growing number of scientists have been predicting that man's addiction to natural resources would one day throw the planet into an irreversible cycle of environmental degradation. What was once dismissed as alarmist conjecture has become, for the most part, empirical fact.

But how much time does our bloated world-population have left to turn back the dial on global warming? You will often hear that, while we are undoubtedly haunted by the threat of mass-flooding and superheated summers, it is our children's children who will have to deal with those dark realities.

Eco-meltdown, however, may be much closer than we think.

At the end of February a small team of U.K.-based explorers will strike out for a 90-day journey to the North Pole. They hope to determine whether the first big — and some would say indisputable — symptom of an Earth seemingly on the edge of terminal sickness will become apparent, not by 2050 or 2100, but within the next five years.

Pen Hadow, leader of the three-person Catlin Arctic Survey, spoke to CBS News at his team's London operations center about the arduous task which lies ahead. He described how a small radar strapped to the back of his sledge may be able to tell us whether year-round ice in the Arctic Ocean will soon become a thing of the past.

"The journey's going to be about 700 miles in distance, taking about three months," said Hadow. "In the earlier phases, the temperatures are about minus 50 degrees, so it's nearly five times colder than a domestic deep freeze. And we're towing sledges with our camping equipment and our survey equipment — almost twice our body weights — for most of the distance."

The expedition's "specially commissioned radar" will send a pulse of energy through the snow and ice, "giving an incredibly detailed cross-profile every ten centimeters along the 700-mile journey." About 12 million readings will be taken during the trek.

The scientist whose troubling prediction the team may be able to help prove was also at the operation center to talk to us. Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. has been studying the Arctic for years. He says the region is providing an "amplifying response, in terms of global warming and climate change, for the entire Earth."

Maslowski offers the following stark warning:

"According to our studies, it's very likely that if this current trend of ice decline based on the last decade or so continues, or accelerates, the ice might be almost gone in summer sometime between 2010 and 2016."

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