Scattered ice floes are seen from the bridge of the USCGC Healy on August 20, 2012 northwest of Barrow, Alaska. (Photo : U.S. Coast Guard)
Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have unveiled data showing that Arctic sea ice cover melted to its minimum extent for 2012 on September 16th. At 1.32 million square miles, this summer's ice cover minimum is the lowest on record.
Scientists at the NSIDC say they have observed "fundamental" changes in the Arctic's sea ice cover. While the ice cover used to be composed mostly of ice that would survive through several years, as of late the Arctic is experiencing mostly seasonal ice cover with large areas that melt away entirely in the summer.
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"We are now in uncharted territory," Mark Serreze, director of the NSIDC said in a statement. "While we've long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur."
Arctic sea ice is seen as a reliable and sensitive climate indicator. Sea ice in the region has always varied from year to year due to weather variations across the glove, but the ice extent has declined dramatically over the past 30 years, according to NSIDC data. This year's minimum cover will be almost 50 percent lower than the 1979-2000 average.
Thinning arctic ice as well as the early loss of snow are warming the Arctic region quickly. This will have a gradual effect on the climate where we live, but will lead to more variations and extremes in weather.
One NSIDC scientist says that recent climate models indicate that ice-free conditions may occur in the Arctic by 2050. However, it should be noted that the current rate of decline is significantly faster than many climate models are able to capture.
"While lots of people talk about opening of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic islands and the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, twenty years from now in August you might be able to take a ship right across the Arctic Ocean," Serreze said.