NASA: Arctic sea ice at second-lowest level on record

Satellite microwave data confirms drastic reduction in the amount of permanent ice covering the Arctic.

NASA has issued a preliminary report confirming environmentalists' fears of disappearing sea ice at the Arctic.

Sea ice is the thick permanent ice formed by frozen ocean water that remains even as seasonal ice melts away in the summer. In the past, it has covered about 60 percent of the Arctic.

The sea ice at the Arctic has now been found to have melted away by as much as half, according to a preliminary report issued Tuesday by NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado.

"According to NASA-processed satellite microwave data, this perennial ice used to cover 50 to 60 percent of the Arctic, but this winter it covered less than 30 percent," NASA said in a statement.

It is the second-smallest amount of coverage since NASA began monitoring the situation in 1979. The Artic's sea ice coverage this September is about 33 percent below average, compared with the record low of 39 percent below average recorded in 2007.

At this time, neither NASA nor the National Snow and Ice Data Center have made suggestions as to the possible cause for the change. A thorough analysis of the data is scheduled to be released the first week of October, according to NASA.

NASA image showing ice levels (in white) for September 12, 2008, at the Arctic. The orange line indicates the average amount of ice coverage for that day between 1979 and 2000. The black cross is the geographic North Pole. National Snow and Ice Data Center

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