The Arctic sea ice cover appears to have reached its minimum extent for the year, the third-lowest recorded since satellites began measuring sea ice extent in 1979, according to the University of Colorado at Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Scientists have been watching the ice return with less vigor year after year. The ice that does return in winter has tended to be thinner, prompting more profound exposure the following year.

A separate study recently indicated that the Arctic and its flaura and fauna may be changing forever as the global warming has been more accute around the top of the world. In recent years, ships have made summar passage across the top of the world in locations not previously possible. 

While this year's September minimum extent was greater than each of the past two record-setting and near-record-setting low years, it is still significantly below the long-term average and well outside the range of natural climate variability, said NSIDC Research Scientist Walt Meier. Most scientists believe the shrinking Arctic sea ice is tied to warming temperatures caused by an increase in human-produced greenhouse gases being pumped into Earth's atmosphere.

Atmospheric circulation patterns helped the Arctic sea ice spread out in August to prevent another record-setting minimum, said Meier. But most of the 2009 September Arctic sea ice is thin first- or second-year ice, rather than thicker, multi-year ice that used to dominate the region, said Meier.

The minimum 2009 sea-ice extent is still about 620,000 square miles below the average minimum extent measured between 1979 and 2000 -- an area nearly equal to the size of Alaska, said Meier. "We are still seeing a downward trend that appears to be heading toward ice-free Arctic summers," Meier said.