ARCTIC ice has shrunk to the lowest level ever recorded, according to satellite data from the past week that shows a massive melt is still under way.
The ice cap had contracted to just over four million square kilometres, about 77,000 square kilometres smaller than the previous record low in 2007, data from the International Arctic Research Centre and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency indicates.
With two or three weeks of warm temperatures yet to come, the area covered by ice may fall yet further, to below four million square kilometres.
It means that, unless the pole grows dramatically cooler, the Arctic ice cap is very likely to vanish entirely during summer by the middle of this century.
''This is significant, because the trend is strongly down and it is consistent with the polar amplification effect,'' said Will Steffen, the executive director of the Australian
National University's Climate Change Institute.
''Polar amplification is where the Arctic is experiencing about double the temperature rise of the global average.
''Because as the ice melts it uncovers darker water beneath, which traps more heat - it creates feedback.
''We can expect to see an ice-free Arctic at about the middle of this century.'' The last time the Arctic ice cap vanished is thought to have been about 130,000 years ago.
Back then, average global temperatures were about 1.5 degrees Celsius above the average for pre-industrial times.
Today, the temperature has already risen a degree above the pre-industrial average, driven mainly by human greenhouse gas emissions, with about half a degree of further warming already ''locked in'' by levels of emissions.
''I'm not that interested in the breaking of records in itself, because the key thing is the downward movement over the last 30 or 40 years of data,'' Professor Steffen said.
His colleague at Australia's Climate Commission, Macquarie University's Lesley Hughes, agreed.
''This is consistent with the trend we've been seeing up until now, and it seems to be accelerating, which is very concerning,'' Professor Hughes said.
The record low appears to have been accelerated by unusual polar weather, including storms which can break up ice, as well as well above-average heat.
The US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, which keeps separate satellite records of the extent of sea ice, is expected to publish further results over the next week to confirm record-breaking low.
When I testified before the US Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind's use of fossil fuels. But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.
My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.
In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.
This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows it is no longer enough to say global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.
The deadly European heatwave of 2003, the fiery Russian heatwave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data is gathered in a few weeks' time, it's likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the US is suffering.
The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.
Years ago, I introduced the concept of ''climate dice'' to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That's natural variability.
But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the dice would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the dice season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.
But loading the dice with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal.
Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate, the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide.
When we plotted the world's changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe.
The change is so dramatic, one face of the dice must represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot events.
Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the past three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 per cent of the globe.
This is the world we have changed, and we have to live in it - the world that caused the 2003 heatwave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data shows, will become even more frequent and more severe.
There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 per cent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.
The future is now. And it is hot.
James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This article was first published in The Washington Post.