The Arctic’s summer sea ice appears to have hit its lowest extent of the year, putting pressure on the region’s diverse wildlife. Ice covered only 1.6 million square miles on Sept. 10, and 2016 is now tied with 2007 for the second-lowest sea ice extent on record, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. The lowest recorded extent took place in 2012 at 1.32 million square miles.
Although ice extent now appears to be edging back up, scientists have not yet announced the official low.
“It is difficult to predict how Arctic ecosystems will respond to decreasing sea ice extent, but we are seeing more species moving in to take advantage of warming Arctic waters, and specialized Arctic species such as polar bears showing signs of stress in some regions,” says Melanie Lancaster of WWF’s Arctic Program. “Conservation action to preserve the Arctic is urgently needed to keep up with these rapid changes.”
Polar bears rely on sea ice to access the seals that are their primary source of food, as well as to rest and breed. With less sea ice every year, polar bears and many other ice-dependent creatures are at risk.
The Arctic is particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, and the region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Globally, the past 16 months have each broken consecutive heat records, with July and August 2016 tied as the hottest months ever recorded—and 2016 may go down as the hottest year ever recorded.