The covering of ice over the Arctic has dropped to lows not seen since a record-breaking 2007, the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported on August 27.
As of August 26, 2012, the sea ice extent, as it’s known in scientific parlance, dropped to 1.58 million square miles. That’s 27,000 square miles less than the measurement taken on September 18, 2007, when it dropped to 1.61 million square miles.
“By itself it’s just a number, and occasionally records are going to get set,” said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier in a statement. “But in the context of what’s happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it’s an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”
The change is an issue for two reasons. First, this low point is occurring earlier in the year than the 2007 record, and second, the ice has not stopped melting. The annual minimum, which is the turning point at which the ice starts re-forming as winter approaches and Earth’s axis tilts back toward its winter solstice position, usually comes in September. In other words, as LiveScience put it, “The melt season still has another two or three weeks to go.”
Last year’s low point came on September 9, 2011, according to Reuters. Moreover, last year’s melt began 10–14 days earlier than normal in areas such as northern Europe and Siberia, NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos told the news wire.
The 2007 record was 23 percent below the earlier record, which occurred in 2005. It also fell 39 percent below the long-term average between 1979, when satellite recordkeeping began, and 2000, Reuters said. However, there was a key difference between 2007 and now.
“The previous record, set in 2007, occurred because of near perfect summer weather for melting ice,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze in the statement. “Apart from one big storm in early August, weather patterns this year were unremarkable. The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn’t matter how the winds blow.”
Scambos also noted that the ice melt appears to be speeding up this year rather than slowing down as it normally does in waning summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Everything about this points in the same direction: We’ve made the Earth warmer,” Scambos told Reuters.
Below, a University of Delaware scientist caught some of the melt on video, with commentary on what it used to look like.
More on the melting Arctic ice and its effect on Indigenous Peoples: