A satellite image shows Arctic sea ice levels on August 26 2012 (Maria-Jose Vinas/Goddard Space Flight Center/PA)
Arctic sea ice has melted away to a new record low level of cover, and more may vanish in the coming weeks.
Latest satellite data shows that on August 26, the vast blanket of ice shrank to 1.58 million square miles.
The extent of the ice is 27,000 square miles less than the previous melt record set on September 18, 2007.
Such extreme ice loss has not been seen since satellite measurements began in 1979.
It is especially alarming since the seasonal summer Arctic "sea ice minimum" normally does not occur until mid to late September. Scientists expect the sea ice to continue to dwindle for the next two or three weeks.
Most experts agree that the retreat of Arctic sea ice is mostly tied to global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, rather than natural climate variations.
US scientist Dr Walt Meier, from the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), which released the new figures, said: "It's a little surprising to see the 2012 Arctic sea ice extent in August dip below the record low 2007 sea ice extent in September. It's likely we are going to surpass the record decline by a fair amount this year by the time all is said and done.
"By itself it's just a number, and occasionally records are going to get set. But in the context of what's happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it's an indication that the Arctic sea ice is fundamentally changing."
Since 1979, September Arctic sea ice cover has declined by around 12% per decade. Dr Meier and other experts believe the Arctic could be experiencing ice-free summers within the next several decades.
Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: "At the current rate of warming, we can expect within a few decades that Arctic sea ice will disappear completely during the summer months."