Arctic sea ice extent is now more than two million square kilometres less than it was in the late twentieth century, with important consequences for the climate, the ocean and traditional lifestyles in the Arctic. Although observations show a more or less continuous decline for the past four or five decades, there are few long-term records with which to assess natural sea ice variability. Until now, the question of whether or not current trends are potentially anomalous has therefore remained unanswerable. Here we use a network of high-resolution terrestrial proxies from the circum-Arctic region to reconstruct past extents of summer sea ice, and show that-although extensive uncertainties remain, especially before the sixteenth century-both the duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice seem to be unprecedented for the past 1,450 years. Enhanced advection of warm Atlantic water to the Arctic seems to be the main factor driving the decline of sea ice extent on multidecadal timescales, and may result from nonlinear feedbacks between sea ice and the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. These results reinforce the assertion that sea ice is an active component of Arctic climate variability and that the recent decrease in summer Arctic sea ice is consistent with anthropogenically forced warming.
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