On March 17, the Arctic Ocean reached its peak level of ice coverage for the rest of the year, and it was shockingly low. The sea ice floating over the North Pole covered only 5.59 million square miles (14.48 million square kilometers), which is the second-lowest maximum measured since 1981. This is further evidence suggesting the world’s ice is melting away.

NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have been closely monitoring the amount of ice found in the northernmost part of the world for almost 40 years, and in that time they’ve discovered a decades-long trend of shrinkage. Consistent rates of ice disappearance support scientists’ prediction that the Arctic will be completely devoid of ice by 2040. If that proves to be true, NASA scientists believe it could begin an even more rapid cycle of global warming than what has been observed today. We’re giving away $3,000 of high-tech travel gear in this prize package. You could win a VR headset, Beats wireless headphones, and much more. Click here to enter!

“The Arctic sea ice cover continues to be in a decreasing trend and this is connected to the ongoing warming of the Arctic,” said Claire Parkinson, senior climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in a statement released Monday. “It’s a two-way street: the warming means less ice is going to form and more ice is going to melt, but also, because there’s less ice, less of the sun’s incident solar radiation is reflected off, and this contributes to the warming.”

Arctic sea ice extent graph 2018
The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 22, 2018, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years.

The sea ice blanketing the North Pole used to go through a predictable cycle of expansion and shrinkage, reaching its maximum yearly extent between February and early April and melting to its lowest point in September. But recently, the ice has declined during both the melting and growing seasons, prompting a host of negative side effects to plants and animals that rely on the frost, like rising sea levels and accelerated coastal erosion.

While this winter saw extremely low sea ice coverage, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean the upcoming melting season will set records. “A lot will depend on what the wind and temperature conditions will be in the spring and summer,” says Parkinson.

On March 22, NASA researchers began a flyover mission of the Arctic Ocean to survey the thickness and distribution of the sea ice. The space agency plans to launch the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) this fall, which will continuously monitor the Arctic Ocean. It will, hopefully, provide them with data compelling enough to spark policy efforts to slow ice melt before it’s too late.