"The vast expanse of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean always recedes in the summer, reaching its lowest point sometime in September. Every winter it expands again, as the long Arctic night descends and temperatures plummet. Each summer over the past six years, global warming has trimmed this ice's total area a little more, and each winter the ice's recovery has been a little less robust. These trends alarmed climate scientists, but most thought that sea ice wouldn't disappear completely in the Arctic summer before 2040 at the earliest.
But this past summer sent scientists scrambling to redo their estimates. Week by week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., reported the trend: from 2.23 million square miles of ice remaining on Aug. 8 to 1.6 million square miles on Sept. 16, an astonishing drop from the previous low of 2.05 million square miles, reached in 2005."
Here's one of the charts from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that scientists are watching. It shows a slight recovery above 2007 levels.
That was in 2007; here's the latest chart showing data as of November 1, 2010. It shows a modest improvement from the alarming reduction in 2007.
Update 10/17/10: Here's a long piece from the New York Times on the melting of the ice caps and what it means for rising sea levels.
Scientists long believed that the collapse of the gigantic ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica would take thousands of years, with sea level possibly rising as little as seven inches in this century, about the same amount as in the 20th century.
But researchers have recently been startled to see big changes unfold in both Greenland and Antarctica.
As a result of recent calculations that take the changes into account, many scientists now say that sea level is likely to rise perhaps three feet by 2100 — an increase that, should it come to pass, would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over.
And the calculations suggest that the rise could conceivably exceed six feet, which would put thousands of square miles of the American coastline under water and would probably displace tens of millions of people in Asia.