In order to measure the spread of sea ice at its highest point throughout the course of the year, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and NASA have been using satellite measurements for the past 38 years. Shrinking sea ice levels mean more sunlight hits the ocean instead, which increases sea temperatures and causes more sea ice to melt in a self-perpetuating cycle.
"Since November, daily Antarctic sea ice extent has continuously been at its lowest levels in the satellite record", said the U.S. space agency. But on February 13, with its record-breaking low levels, there were only 6.26 million square miles of polar sea ice.
"The long-term decline is a clear indicator of climate change", said Walt Meier, a NASA scientist and an affiliate scientist at National Snow and Ice Data Center, which announced the low record set for Arctic winter sea ice maximum extent March 22.
Data from the European Space Agency's CryoSat-2 satellite also shows that this winter's ice cover was slightly thinner than over the past four years.
Sea ice levels shrink in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Last month total polar sea ice on earth covered 6.26 million square miles, which is 790,000 square miles less than the average global minimum extent for the period between 1981 and 2010. The minimum is typically reached in September.
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Operation IceBridge, NASA'a aerial survey of polar ice, flies over a lead, or opening in the sea ice cover, near the Alaskan coast on March 11, 2017.
On March 2, Antarctic sea ice hit a record-low summertime minimum.
Whether or not this new record low minimum sea ice extent in the Antarctic is due to global warming is still in question. Warm water and warm weather late last fall ensured the trend continued, significantly delaying sea ice accumulation during the winter season.
That was 71,000 square miles below the previous lowest minimum extent in the satellite record, which occurred in 1997, said NASA. Therefore, if we don't stop increasing the Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, record low ice extents like the one just reported can only continue-even if a bit more slowly. "However, this might just be an extreme case of pushing the envelope of year-to-year variability".
There are studies which have attributed the sea ice decline to natural changes but predominantly, the ice erosion is linked to climate change and the sharp buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other measurements, made by the University of Washington within the auspices of the "Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System" programme, have drawn similar conclusions. "We'll need to have several more years of data to be able to say there has been a significant change in the trend".