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Arctic ice reaches record low, could worsen global warming (+video)

Arctic sea-ice extent has fallen to its lowest level on record, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scientists say that the loss of the reflective ice could result in even warmer surface temperatures on Earth. 

By Wynne ParryLiveScience Senior Writer / August 27, 2012

Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea, on July 20, 2011. Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to the lowest levels ever recorded, report scientists.

NASA/Kathryn Hansen

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Arctic sea ice, the white cap that covers the watery northern edge of the planet, has melted back to a record low level.

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Scientists say Arctic sea ice is likely to shrink to its smallest recorded size sometime next week. The ongoing thaw has opened new sea lanes to shipping, with a Chinese icebreaker recently becoming the first ship to cross the Arctic Ocean from China to Iceland. Matt Stock reports.

However, the ice is unlikely to stop shrinking. Arctic sea melts through the summer usually reaching its annual minimum in September.

On Sunday (Aug. 26), Arctic sea-ice extent fell to 1.58 million square miles (4.10 million square kilometers), surpassing the previous low, set on Sept. 18, 2007, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports. Sea-ice extent refers to the area of ocean covered at least 15 percent by sea ice, according to the NSIDC.

The record low, set in 2007, stood at 1.61 square miles (4.17 square kilometers).

But this year's melt is unlikely to stop soon. The melt season still has another two or three weeks to go. [10 Things to Know about Sea Ice]

Continuous satellite records of sea-ice extent began in 1979. But in recent years, satellite data have shown a shift in the fluctuating ice cover. For example, including this year, the six lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last six years, the NSIDC reports.

Scientists attribute the shift to a combination of natural forces, for example, a storm in early August coincided with an acceleration of melt that occurred at the same time. However, over time, the effects of winds, clouds and other natural conditions should, in theory, balance themselves out. It is the emission of greenhouse gases that alters the long-term trend by warming the planet, Walt Meier, a research scientist at NSIDC told LiveScience last year

This year's melt rate was much faster than the normal rate for this time of year, the NSIDC reported today (Aug. 27).

Sea ice matters to the animals, such as polar bears and walruses, that depend on it for habitat, and scientists worry the loss of ice could have serious consequences for them.

Sea ice also affects weather and global climate, because it reflects most of the sun's energy back out to space. If sea ice melts, the dark water beneath it absorbs most of the energy, which in turn enters the natural system. In this way, scientists believe the melting of sea ice will aggravate global warming.

Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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