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On thin ice: As Arctic Ocean warms, a scramble to understand its weather

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But in a clear sign that a day or two isn't enough, "one of the requirements we recently received from the Coast Guard is to get seven-day forecasts of sea-ice conditions so they can properly plan operations," Dr. Clemente-Colon says.

All this has a familiar ring to veteran Arctic scientists.

Ice forecasts were "an important element during the Cold War," says Axel Schweiger, a polar scientist at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory in Seattle. Back then, US and Soviet nuclear submarines stalked one another in an ocean basin seen as a prime area for launching sub-based, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

But interest in Arctic sea-ice forecasts waned when the Cold War ended, only to return with concerns about the effects of global warming.

In 2007, when the summer melt season ended in mid-September, the extent of summer ice reached its lowest point in the satellite record, which goes back to 1979.

The '07 record didn't last long. In 2012, the melt-back of summer ice broke the '07 record – in the middle of the melt season. By the end of the season the extent of summer sea ice was 18 percent below the 2007 figure. The surviving ice patch – some 1.4 million square miles of it – had anchored one edge to the northern coasts of Greenland and Canada's Arctic Archipelago, leaving several hundred miles of open water between its seaward edges and the remaining Arctic coastlines of North America, Europe, and Asia.

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