arctic ice (2)
Ice breaks away from a frozen coastline near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen April 23, 2007. Reuters/Francois Lenoir

On Feb. 25, the ice cover in the Arctic reached its annual peak -- two weeks before its average date of March 12. On this particular day, the ice at the North Pole covered an area of 5.61 million square miles, which, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the lowest annual maximum ever recorded.

The annual maximum this year is a staggering 425,000 square miles less than the 1981-2010 average and over 50,000 square miles below the previous lowest maximum, seen in 2011. This also makes the latest reading the lowest winter maximum on satellite records, which extend back to 1979.

“This is not a record to be proud of. Low sea ice can create a series of reactions that further threaten the Arctic and the rest of the globe,” Alexander Shestakov, director of the Global Arctic Program at the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), said, in a statement.

Here the 2015 maximum is compared to the 1979-2014 average maximum shown in yellow. A distance indicator shows the difference between the two in the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Scientists studying the phenomenon believe that extremely warm temperatures over the Pacific and Arctic regions led to the record-low ice cover. Moreover, the melting process creates a self-sustaining cycle -- high temperatures melt ice, creating open areas of ocean that absorb more heat, which in turn melt more ice and warm up the planet.

Even in the natural course of events, the amount of the polar ocean covered by sea ice waxes and wanes with the seasons, reaching its lowest point at the end of summer and its peak at the end of winter. However, this trend has been disrupted by the presence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing wide swings in the ice cover at the North Pole.

According to the NSIDC, Arctic sea ice extent has declined by 4.52 percent per decade, on average. The summer minimum has seen an even steeper drop of 13.7 percent per decade.

arctic sea ice
The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 18, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. National Snow and Ice Data Center

However, neither the winter maximum nor its timing necessarily reflect what the summer minimum would be. And, it is the summer minimum that provides a true measure of the extent of permanent ice cover in the Arctic, which, in turn, indicates the speed of rise in global temperatures.

“Scientifically, the yearly maximum extent is not as interesting as the minimum. It is highly influenced by weather and we’re looking at the loss of thin, seasonal ice that is going to melt anyway in the summer and won’t become part of the permanent ice cover,” Walt Meier, a sea-ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said, in a statement.

However, given that the latest finding comes on the back of recent research, which shows that Arctic Sea ice has thinned by 65 percent since 1975, it points to a worrying trend.