Another fall has arrived, and with it, another unusually low Arctic sea ice minimum. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, on September 17 the sea ice coverage dropped to the lowest this year, 1.94 million square miles. It wasn’t quite the lowest extent ever reached—that occurred in 2012—but was 463,000 square miles below the average minimum from 1981 to 2010, and the sixth-lowest extent in the satellite record.
The decline of Arctic sea ice has wide-ranging consequences for weather, animals, the environment, and humanity, not all of which are fully understood yet. But one thing is clear: the recent years have seen a dramatic shift in the Arctic. See how much the minimum extent has shrunk from 1996 to 2013:
What’s more, some scientists think the loss of sea ice exacerbates the problem of sea ice loss, by exposing dark water that traps heat more efficiently than the reflective ice. This feedback loop may prove hard to stop; researchers are already starting to treat the idea of ice-free summers in the Arctic as more of a ‘when’ question than an ‘if’ question.