On August 26 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) informed users on their website that a new record minimum of Arctic sea ice extent had been set. The ice-cover in the Arctic continues to decrease each summer until the end of September when the trend turns and the ice begins to increase again. 

Ice-cover made visual

The National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website is a useful resource where changes in Arctic ice-cover can be followed on a daily basis. It is possible to view the data as a graph, with past ice-minimum statistics and averages displayed on the same graph for comparison.

Users can also choose to view the ice data on a map and compare current ice-cover with the 1979-2000 ice average. This second approach makes the situation in the Arctic more visual and demonstrates just how dramatic the melting is.

Development concerning but unsurprising

According to Lars-Otto Reiersen, Executive Secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) working group, this year's ice-minimum does not come as a surprise, but the size of ice loss does. In the comprehensive assessment of changes in Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA), delivered to the Arctic Ministers at the Nuuk meeting in May 2011, AMAP noted this escalating trend of Arctic melting beyond what had been previously estimated.

The record low extent of sea ice in the Arctic coincides with high temperatures in the Arctic and a record melt area over the Greenland Ice Sheet.

According to the SWIPA assessment the largest and most permanent bodies of ice in the Arctic – multiyear sea ice, mountain glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet – have all been declining faster since 2000 than they did in the previous decade, and the summer of 2012 will follow this trend.

Chair of SWIPA, Morten Skovgård Olsen, says:

"2012 has already broken several melt records in the Arctic, and it will be a new extreme year. What is worrying is that we see extremes more and more often and that the changes all point in the same direction, that the Arctic ice is diminishing even faster. "

The debate is ongoing about how long it will take before we see ice-free or nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic. The SWIPA assessment projects that the Arctic Ocean will become nearly ice-free in summer within this century, likely within the next thirty to forty years. The reality could however be even quicker than that.

One thing is certain however, and that is the fact that the accelerating rate of melting will have considerable effects on communities in the Arctic. Serious challenges as well as new opportunities will arise and these will impact both local communities and traditional ways of life.

"Changes in snow and ice-conditions also change the water conditions of the Arctic. The changes fundamentally change ecosystems and living conditions in the Arctic. Accessibility to resources is already changing and whereas this could create opportunities for exploitation of oil and mineral resources it will challenge traditional lifestyles." says S. Olsen.

The SWIPA executive summary report can be downloaded here. There is also a series of short films that cover topics from the report. Further, an overview version of the assessment in lay-man style will be available in the fall 2012. For the more versions of the assessment visit the AMAP website.

Photo: Daily images of the Arctic sea ice extent from 12 September courtesy of NSIDC