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North pole ice cap now an island

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REUTERS/Geoff York/World Wildlife Fund

(Read caption) A polar bear is seen in the water during an aerial survey off the Alaska coast in this photo taken Aug. 15, 2008. Arctic sea ice shrank to its second-lowest level ever, US scientists said.

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For the first time in recorded human history, the Arctic is completely surrounded by open water, new satellite images reveal.

Using images from NASA, scientists at the University of Bremen in Germany have concluded that both the Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northeast Passage over Russia are now free of ice, making it possible to sail around the North Pole.

Still, Arctic sea ice is not at the lowest level on record: According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that occurred on Sept. 21, 2005. But scientists say that the rate of disappearance – 10 percent in the last decade – is far surpassing their predictions. As my colleague Pete Spotts noted in this blog last week, scientists believe that the Arctic could be ice-free decades earlier than their initial predictions.

"No matter where we stand at the end of the melt season," NSIDC scientist Mark Serreze told Reuters reporter Deborah Zabarenko last week, "it's just reinforcing this notion that Arctic ice is in its death spiral."

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