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Putting ice-loss on the map

Everyone has heard that the Arctic is losing ice. Now, mapmakers are making sure the change gets reflected in print
The view from the top isn’t necessarily a pleasant one (Photo: Nasa)

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In what its cartographers are describing as the most significant mapping change since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the next edition of the National Geographic Society’s world atlas will show a significant decline in Arctic ice.

“Compared to previous editions of the atlas, the change in sea ice coverage, that graphic portrayal, that white polygon, has significantly changed over time. And in the tenth edition atlas you’ll see a significant reduction in area covered by ice,” José Valdés, an NGS geographer, told

The changes, according the data used by the society to create the new map, are clear: in the 1980s, the perennial ice cover was on average between 7 and 8 million square kilometers. By 2007, it was down to 3.5 million square kilometres, and in 2012 it set a record low of about 3 million square kilometres.

The NGS first included comprehensive information about the Arctic in the fifth edition of its atlas, in 1989. The new edition, to be released on September 30, will reflect that Arctic ice coverage has declined 12 percent per decade, according to the Nasa statistics.

SEE VIDEO: Is ice melt atlering National Geographic maps (at end of article)

Despite only updating its atlas this year, the NGS not been ignorant of the changes. Articles and interactive graphics on the society’s website explain the changes in detail.

“You hear reports all the time in the media about this,” Valdés told “Until you have a hard-copy map in your hand, the message doesn’t really hit home.”

In producing the map, the NGS used data from Nasa as well as the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. The Nasa figures come from a 2012 study that complied 30 years worth of ice data, and, according to Rosemary Wardley, the a senior NGS cartographer, provided “comprehensive coverage” for mapping multi-year ice.

Walt Meier, a Nasa cryospheric scientist, expressed concern that the new map did not include enough information to properly inform users. He also pointed out that using 2012 as a reference year might over-emphasise the loss, since 2013 showed a slight rebound in ice levels.

SEE RELATED: Thin ice getting thinner

This year's May ice-extent, however, was the third lowest on record, and Valdés told that details such as data-availability and the limitations of what can be shown on a paper map had required compromises, but said he hoped the atlas would “open people’s eyes to what’s happening in the world”.

Josefino Comiso, a senior research scientist at Nasa, warned that this might not be the last time the NGS would need to update the atlas.

“With the trend that we're seeing now, it's very likely that there’ll be a day within this century that there’ll be no ice in the Arctic.”