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Now you see it, now you don't (nearly as much)

By Peter N. Spotts / August 28, 2008

The European Space Agency's ENVISAT satellite captures the Arctic's shrinking summer sea ice in August. The red boundary outlines the ice boundary at the end of the melt season in 2007. It was the largest loss of summer ice on record.

ESA photo

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It's getting down to the wire: Will the Arctic ice cap's annual melt-off this year top last year's record?

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In one sense, it's a trivial "horse race" question, because at this point in the summer, stats for the two years are sufficiently close and low to arch eyebrows yet again within the Arctic science community -- already out in force as part of the International Polar Year, which runs through next March.

So far, this year's decline has ensured that 2008 will at least rank as the second lowest year on record for summer sea-ice extent at the top of the world. Where Arctic scientists once spoke of virtually ice-free summers by 2070, and more recently by 2040, "the Arctic could be mainly ice free even earlier," according to Heinrich Miller, an Arctic scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, in an ESA press release that accompanied the satellite images.

"Some notables had suggested '08 sea ice would probably not be another record-breaker or even close. What's going on up there now suggests the situation is indeed serious," writes Jonathan Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Arctic science is one of its specialties.

The data on the Arctic ice cap come from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The European Space Agency chipped in today with a short "flip book" movie using images from its ENVISAT earth-observation satellite. Another useful website for taking part in Ice Watch 2008 lives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It's dubbed The Cryosphere Today.

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