Arctic Sea Ice This Summer is the Fourth Lowest on Record as Temperatures Rise (VIDEO)

First Posted: Sep 16, 2015 07:27 AM EDT

It turns out that the Arctic sea ice is the fourth lowest on record since observations from space began. After analyzing satellite data, scientists have found that the 2015 Arctic sea ice minimum was startlingly low.

Arctic sea ice cover is made up of frozen seawater that floats on top of the ocean. This ice helps regulate the planet's temperature by reflecting solar energy back to space. The sea ice cap, though, grows and shrinks cyclically with the seasons. But lately, the ice minimums have been becoming less and less during the summer.

"This year is the fourth lowest, and yet we haven't seen any major weather event or persistent weather pattern in the Arctic this summer that helped push the extent lower as often happens," said Walt Meier, sea ice scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a news release. "It was a bit warmer in some areas than last year, but it was cooler in other places, too."

The lowest year on record, in 2012, saw a powerful August cyclone that fractured the ice cover, accelerating its decline.

Sea ice decline has actually accelerated since 1996. The 10 lowest minimum extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last 11 years. The 2014 minimum was 1.94 million square miles, the seventh lowest on record. In this year, the lowest is 1.70 million square miles.

"The ice cover becomes less and less resilient, and it doesn't take as much to melt it as it used to," said Meier. "The sea ice cap, which used to be a solid sheet of ice, now is fragmented into smaller floes that are more exposed to warm ocean waters. In the past, Arctic sea ice was like a fortress. The ocean could only attack it from the sides. Now it's like the invaders have tunneled in from underneath and the ice pack melts from within."

It's likely that the thicker ice will continue to decline over time. While there may be recoveries during some years, it's expected to go down again since the surface temperature in the region continues to increase.

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