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Record for minimum Arctic sea ice cover falls with weeks of melting left

Ben Anderson
Photo by Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Arctic sea ice extent has hit a new record low, according to researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, breaking the previous record for minimum ice cover set in September 2007. 

Sea ice now covers about 1.58 million square miles, less than the 1.61 million square miles recorded on Sept. 18, 2007, the previous low. It may go lower; the center notes there are still "two to three more weeks left in the melt season."

Researchers were planning a press conference Monday to discuss the issue, but in a news release, the analysts discussed some important points underlying the new record low.

"By itself (the sea ice extent is) just a number, and occasionally records are going to get set," said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier. "But in the context of what's happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it's an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing."

NSIDC Director Mark Serreze, meanwhile, noted that the previous record low came in a year where weather greatly aided the degree of melting Arctic ice. This year, however, has been a largely unremarkable season, save for one strong storm system in August, Serreze said.

"The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow," he said.

The pace of melting has picked up in recent weeks. July's sea ice levels, while well below the average from 1979-2000, were still greater than 2011's record low for that month. That contrasts with June's levels, which also saw a new record low in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Alaska's Arctic waters remain among the most choked off in the circumpolar region. Alaska's Chukchi Sea melt has been near average most of the summer, while the Beaufort Sea region is among the bodies of water where melt exceeds the average. In fact, the persistent ice in the Chukchi has proven a headache for Royal Dutch Shell, which hoped to roll out the first phases of its ambitious Arctic drilling venture this summer.

Shell executive Pete Slaiby told attendees at the Arctic Imperative conference in Girdwood Sunday that the company has submitted a request to the U.S. Department of the Interior that might allow them to extend their drilling window. That window closes on Sept. 24, in order to avoid any potential mishaps as the Arctic ice resumes its winter stranglehold in the northern seas. But with the lower levels of sea ice and continued thawing, it's possible that that window could eventually widen.

Contact Ben Anderson ben(at)alaskadispatch.com