By Kelly Rondeau

The numbers are in from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and declining ice thickness is at a hazardous level; observed to be the second-lowest coverage on record, scientists said this week.

According to the NSIDC, on September 12, 2008, the sea ice extent dropped to 1.74 million square miles (4.52 million square kilometers) — or a little less than half the area of the United States. This appears to have been the lowest point of the year, as sea ice has now begun its annual cycle of growth in response to autumn cooling.

Satellite observations show that the 2008 minimum is the second-lowest recorded since 1979 — the lowest level was recorded in 2007 — and is 2.24 million square kilometers (0.86 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum.

The latest news from the NSIDC, which is a part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and NASA, reaffirms the strong negative trend in summertime sea ice observed over the past thirty years.

“Arctic sea ice may well have reached its lowest levels ever in terms of total volume,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) noted in a press release.

“If you take reduced ice thickness into account, there is probably less ice overall in the Arctic this year than in any other year since monitoring began,” said Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, senior climate change adviser for WWF’s Arctic Program. “This is also the first year that the Northwest Passage over the top of North America and the Northeast Passage over the top of Russia are both free of ice.”

Sommerkorn says in the statement that the continuing loss of older, thicker ice means that the Arctic ice cover is following a trend of becoming younger and thinner each year. The area of ice that is at least five years old has decreased by 56 percent between 1985 and 2007. The oldest ice types have essentially disappeared. Taken together, the new figures clearly show the Arctic is experiencing the continuation of an accelerated declining trend.

“The Arctic is a key factor in stabilizing the global climate,” Sommerkorn adds.

He explains the imperative existence of Arctic ice: “It’s like a mirror, reflecting the sun’s heat back into space. As that ice goes, Arctic waters absorb more heat, adding to global warming. The local warming of the Arctic will also soon release more greenhouse gases from the Arctic that were previously locked in permanently frozen ground. This means there will be two powerful feedbacks from the Arctic affecting the global environment. This is not just an Arctic problem, it is a global problem, and it demands a global response.”

Governments of the world are reportedly negotiating a new climate agreement to come into force in 2013, but the heat is on for a new international climate agreement to be reached at the U.N. Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009.

For more information see the full NSIDC announcement. See an up close view of 2008 Arctic Sea Ice from the AMSR-E, the instrument on the Aqua satellite here.

The NSIDC will release more detailed information from research gathered at the beginning of October, including a full analysis of the possible causes behind this year’s low ice conditions, particularly interesting aspects of the melt season, the set-up going into the important winter growth season ahead, and graphics comparing this year to the long-term record. At that time, they say, they will know what the monthly average September sea ice extent was in 2008 – the measure scientists most often rely on for accurate analysis and comparison over the long-term.

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