North Pole Ice Pack Dwindles

It's been a warmer than usual spring at the top of the world, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

At a remote field camp near the North Pole, American researchers have been fishing for answers.

"We've seen the change concentrated at the pole over the last 15 years,'' says one of the researchers, Jamie Morrison, with the University of Washington.

Each April, scientists funded by the national science foundation, take advantage of a three-week window -- when there's 24 hour daylight and temperatures hovering around freezing -- to probe the polar ice pack. The ice pack that has been thinning and retreating for several decades now.

"What I'm becoming more convinced of is that conditions of ice here really do affect the global atmospheric circulation."

In other words, less ice means more areas of warm water. And pockets of warm air that are helping to change the global temperatures and wind patterns. As a result, one new study suggests that desperately needed storms will be steered away from the drought-plagued American west, drying it by as much as 30 percent more, and increasing the wildfire danger.

And what's triggered the change in the arctic?

"You've got a mix of a sort of el nino for the arctic, and a global warming signal,'' says Morrison.

The talk of global warming is a double-edged sword for skeptics who don't believe it, but are nevertheless intrigued by the possibilities a warmer arctic may bring. One possibility is an open water shortcut over the top of the world that may already be emerging.

About 1,000 away in the tiny Inuit village of Resolute Bay, Canada, life may be in for a big change. Some climatologists believe that when these kindergarteners reach middle age, in just 50 years, the normally ice-choked bay will be part of a summer-long ice-free Northwest passage.

"It cuts thousands and thousands of miles off the sea route between Europe and the Orient, and would be irresistible to commerce," says Dennis Conlon, with the Office of Naval Research. Conlon wrote a recently declassified document exploring the military implications of a watery arctic.

Conlon says an open Northwest passage makes America open to new threats.

"We'd have to counter terrorism, we'd have to protect assets, we'd have to perform search and rescue. Every function the Navy performs, we'd have to perform in the Arctic."

It's no longer a matter of speculation -- the Arctic is changing. And if the climate change is prolonged, it will have a global impact. The question on the table is whether man can or will do anything about it.

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