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Polar Sea Ice the Size of India Vanishes in Record Heat, Scientists Say

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The sea ice covering Earth's two poles are at record lows amidst exceptionally warm global temperatures.

The eight panels show the November sea ice extent in the Arctic roughly every five years since 1978, when satellites started monitoring sea ice.NASA Earth Observatory

Citing satellite measurements from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Reuters reported that the extent of sea ice off Antarctica and the Arctic on Dec. 4 was 1.48 million square miles below the 1981-2010 average. To visualize just how much has vanished, the news service explained we've lost area of sea ice as big as India or two Alaskas.

"There are some really crazy things going on," Mark Serreze, NSIDC director told Reuters, adding that parts of the Arctic experienced temperatures 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal on certain days last month.

This season's polar sea ice is the smallest ever recorded, according to NSIDC data. Arctic sea ice hit a record low of 3.96 million square miles early December, below the 2006 record for the same time of year.

NASA's Earth Observatory also found that Arctic sea ice extent averaged 3.52 million square miles in November—the lowest November extent in the satellite record.

On the other end of the globe, Antarctica's sea ice measured 4.33 million square miles, the smallest for December and beating the 1982 record, NSIDC found.

Interestingly, Antarctica's melting sea ice appears to contradict a trend that climate skeptics have cited as "proof" that climate change is not happening. While prior observations indeed showed a rise in Antarctic sea ice, NASA found that the planet's overall sea ice has been melting at an average annual rate of 13,500 square miles since 1979—or roughly the size of Maryland every year. As NASA climate scientist Claire Parkinson pointed out, "global sea ice is still decreasing."

The trends in Antarctic sea ice do not contradict evidence that the climate is warming. Watch here for an explainer on how sea ice behaves very differently in the two regions.

Dr. Jan Lieser from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre also told Australia's ABC network, "sea ice cover in the Arctic as been reducing steadily over the past several decades and climate models also predict that over time sea ice will also reduce around Antarctica."

Scientists say that the shrinking polar sea ice could be due to a number of factors including natural swings, record high temperatures, a rise in greenhouse gases or this year's El Nino event that unlocked the Pacific Ocean's warm waters.

NSIDC's Serreze said that the record-lows from both poles might be down to "blind dumb chance" but noted that "Antarctica is the sleeping elephant that is beginning to stir."

The record retreat alarms wildlife and climate experts. "Sea ice has this beautiful feature that it reflects much of the sun's energy back into space which helps to keep the climate system in the balance, if we're seeing a change in that balance we're seeing a change in the system," Lieser told ABC. "We know that krill is dependent on sea ice as a habitat. We know that certain types of seal give birth to the pups on the sea ice. If the season is shortened this can have massive implications on the ecosystem."

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research professor Anders Levermann told Reuters that low polar sea ice is a sign of man-made global warming.

"It's an extraordinary departure from the norm," he said.

Meanwhile, President-elect Donald Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, plans to entirely eliminate all climate research at NASA and is appointing fellow climate-deniers and fossil-fuel bigwigs for cabinet positions, including Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil and rumored candidate for Secretary of State.

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