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Climate Extremes: Arctic Sea Ice Melts to Record Low

September 26, 2012; 12:14 PM ET

Arctic sea ice has melted to its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1979, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced.

The total ice extent as of Aug. 31, 2012, 1.40 million square miles, is the smallest ice extent measured ever, surpassing the record low from 2007 of 1.54 million square miles.

According to the NSIDC, during August, the Arctic lost an average of 35,400 square miles of ice per day, the fastest observed loss for the month of August on record.

August 2012 marks the 16th consecutive August and the 135th consecutive month with below-average Arctic sea ice extent.

"We're now about 50 percent ice coverage compared to the period '79 to 2000," Dr. Andrew Carleton of Penn State University told AccuWeather.

"This means several things [for the climate]. It means, of course, it has melted so much, it has warmed up in the polar regions, especially in the arctic," Carleton said.

"When you remove a large amount of sea ice and when the sun is above the horizon, obviously in the summer time, this means that more polar energy gets absorbed by the ocean, so the ocean is warming up, and that means it is more difficult in the following winter to grow sea ice again."

Sea ice models have predicted this melt to happen eventually, but were incorrect in the rapidity of the melt, he added.

Outdated models, anywhere from 20-30 years old, predicted that the arctic ocean could become ice free by as late as 2075, but the melt has been occurring much more rapidly in the past decade.

The impacts of such a change have not been confirmed. NOAA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center have not predicted its implications in their reports.

The extent of the sea ice could be a catalyst for numerous scenarios, Carleton explained.

"It's likely that with more ocean exposed, particularly in the fall and the winter, there'll be more water vapor going into the atmosphere from the ocean, more heat. This could, in fact, energize storm systems in the middle to higher latitudes and lead to greater snow fall amounts," said Carleton. "In the middle and high latitudes, it might actually increase blocking. It might increase the strength of the high pressure systems, so you might get greater regional variability."

"It's kind of a paradox that you could have more warming but you could also have increased amounts of ice on the ocean and in the winter time, and also increased storms. But again, its not clear if that would happen, it's just one possibility," Carleton said.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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