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Arctic sea ice is vanishing far faster than anyone thought possible

Melting water pours from ice face of Brasvellbreen Icefield on stormy summer morning.
Paul Souders | Getty Images
Melting water pours from ice face of Brasvellbreen Icefield on stormy summer morning.

Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate far faster than anyone thought, and it is already wildly, and perhaps permanently, changing the region, and the planet.

Historically, sea ice forms every winter across the top of the planet, and covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Every summer, the ice melts a bit and retreats, only to repeat the cycle again. But since the 1980s, the ice has been retreating further and further overall, contributing to changes to ecosystems, and erosion so severe it is biting off chunks of coastlines in Alaska, Canada and elsewhere. It even is exacerbating the warming trend in the Arctic.

As 2016 continues apace to be one of the warmest years on record, Arctic sea ice levels appear to be among the lowest on record, said Tom Wagner, program manager for NASA's cryosphere research — a name given to the study of frozen regions of the planet. "It doesn't look like the ice is healing or growing back."

An animation showing the annual retreat of Arctic ice between 1989 and 2015. (Source: NASA)

"By some accounts we have lost more than two-thirds of the ice that used to be back in the 1980s," Wagner said. "This looks to be a very, very long-term trend and we are only going to be losing more ice.

This matters because the "health" of the ice is considered a general indicator of what is going on in the Earth's total climate system.

"This is not something that will affect humanity in the far off future," Wagner said, "loss of this ice is already wildly changing the Arctic," and rippling outward to the rest of the planet.

For example, sea level rise is exacerbating the warming trend in the Arctic, indirectly contributing to phenomena such permafrost thaw, land ice melting and sea level rise.

Sea ice forms a kind of mirrored hat over the ocean that holds heat in, and reflects sunlight, Wagner told CNBC. As the ice recedes, the ocean releases more heat into the atmosphere, and the dark ocean absorbs more sunlight. This causes more warming in the region, and leads to phenomena such as permafrost thaw, another process that is contributing to further warming. It also melts more land ice, further raising sea levels.

"The planet is not just changing, it is changed," Wagner said. "And we have to deal with the change that has occurred. The melting of the glaciers in Alaska and Canada and Greenland is already raising sea levels to the point that Miami and New York are experiencing flooding."

UPDATED: This post has been updated to explain the connection between melting sea ice, melting land ice, and sea level rise.