The Arctic ice cap declined to a record minimum size in summer 2007. Studies indicate this accelerated shrinkage of Arctic sea ice may be in response to a strong warming trend and that the climate reacts more strongly to a given amount of global warming than generally believed.
The Arctic ice cap consists of a continent-sized sheet of sea ice that floats at the surface of the Arctic Ocean. During the dark of winter, the ice cap covers nearly the entire Arctic Ocean, but during the summer constant sunlight melts the edges of the ice cap, causing it to shrink in area. This annual shrinking begins in early spring and progresses into mid-September, when the extent of the ice cap reaches its summertime minimum and begins to grow again as the sun sets for the year and the chill of winter returns. Since 1979, the extent of the Arctic sea ice has been monitored using satellite observations. During this time, the September minimum extent has declined on average as the Arctic has warmed. Since 2000, there has been a series of record-breaking low annual minima, with 2002, 2005, and 2007 each establishing new records. View Graph 
On August 17, 2007, the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported: “Arctic sea ice surpassed the previous single-day (absolute minimum) record for the lowest extent ever measured by satellite.” One month later, the NSIDC reported that the ice cap had reached it annual minimum size (Figure 1), which was “4.13 million square kilometers (1.59 million square miles), compared to 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles) in 2005.” Compared to the long-term average between 1979 and 2000, The 2007 minimum “was lower by 2.61 million square kilometers (one million square miles), an area approximately equal to the size of Alaska and Texas combined, or the size of ten United Kingdoms.” (NSIDC, 2007b).
The wintertime maximum area of the ice cap occurs in March and has also been shrinking. The annual maximum sea ice extent reached record-breaking lows in three consecutive winters (2004-2006). In March 2007, the maximum extent was the second lowest on record after 2006. Regarding this observation, NSIDC scientist Walt Meier said, “This year's low wintertime extent is another milestone in a strong downward trend. We're still seeing near-record lows and higher-than-normal temperatures. We expect the downward trend to continue in future years” (NSIDC, 2007a).
In recent months, some important peer-reviewed studies have been published on the observed and projected shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap. In April, scientists from NSIDC and the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a study documenting from long-term observations that climate models underestimate the rate of Arctic sea ice loss (Stroeve et al., 2007). Observed loss of sea ice from 1953 to 2006 occurred three times faster than the average rate projected for the same period by 18 of the latest generation of climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to a recent review of the scientific evidence, the observed ice loss “is best viewed as a combination of strong natural variability… and a growing radiative forcing associated with rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases…” (Serreze et al., 2007).
This summer, the initial rate of Arctic sea ice decline was similar to previous record-breaking years, but in late June and early July there was a dramatic surge in the rate of loss that led to the early arrival of the record-low sea ice extent reached in August (Figure 2). Regarding this surge, the NSIDC said, “…sea ice declined at a pace of up to 210,000 square kilometers (81,081 square miles) per day, or the equivalent of an area the size of Kansas each day. This rate was unprecedented in the satellite record…” (NSIDC, 2007b). View Graph 
The cause of this surge is unclear, but is consistent with recent modeling research suggesting that sudden, extreme acceleration of shrinkage may be an inherent response of Arctic sea ice to a strong warming trend (Holland et al., 2006). In this study, about half of the model projections exhibited sudden accelerations in sea ice loss. In the model projections where such events occurred, trends in ice loss were four times faster than in projections without abrupt accelerations. If such accelerations are inherent to the response of sea ice to persistent warming, the Arctic could be ice free during the summer well before the end of this century (Serreze et al., 2007), a condition that has not existed for at least one million years and probably much longer (Overpeck et al., 2005).
The loss of Arctic sea ice is not the only aspect of climate change that has been underestimated by projections. Recent observations indicate that climate models have underestimated ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (Shepherd & Wingham, 2007), ice loss from mountain glaciers (Meier et al., 2007), the rate of global sea level rise (Rahmstorf et al., 2007), change in global precipitation (Wentz et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2007), and response of northern forests to warming (Soja et al., 2007). All of these changes were predicted before they were detected, but they are occurring sooner or more rapidly than expected (Engelhaupt, 2007). Although there are probably multiple reasons for underestimating climate change and ecosystem responses to it, inadequately treated positive feedbacks (amplifying factors within the climate system itself) are probably involved (Pittock, 2006).
The unexpectedly rapid change in Arctic sea ice and other climate processes suggests that the climate reacts more strongly to a given amount of global warming than scientists have calculated. As a result, risks from future climate change are likely greater than scientists have generally believed, and existing climate change projections might best be viewed as the minimum changes that humanity should expect.
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