The cap of ice that sits atop the North Pole has shrunk to a record extent—and there is likely still more melting to come before the end of the summer of 2012. As of August 26, Arctic sea ice extent had shrunk to 4.1 million square kilometers, below the previous record minimum of 4.17 million square kilometers set on September 18, 2007.

A burst of melting in early August appears to have been the cause, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. At present, the sea ice seems to be losing an area the size of South Carolina each day—roughly 75,000 square kilometers—nearly double the usual rate observed in satellite images since 1979.

This is no surprise, given that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases due to fossil fuel burning, forest clearing and other activities have brought about a rapidly warming Arctic. Each year from 2007 through 2012 has ranked among the lowest sea ice extents on record—and with a few weeks left in the season, it is likely that 2012 will far surpass the previous record. That's good news for oil companies and others (like the Chinese) looking to explore Arctic waterways for shorter shipping routes and more of the fossil fuels causing climate change in the first place. It's bad news for those who rely on sea ice, whether the peoples of the Arctic or the polar bears.

Images: Courtesy of NSIDC