Sorensen has sailed deep into ice at both poles for 30 years, but this voyage is different, he says. The edge of the Arctic ice cap is usually far south of where we are now at the very end of the melt season. More than 600,000 square kilometres (sq km) more ice has melted in 2012 than was ever recorded by satellites before. Now the minimum extent has been nearly reached and the sea is starting to refreeze. …

The vast polar ice cap, which regulates the Earth’s temperature and has been a permanent fixture in our understanding of how the world works, has this year retreated further and faster than anyone expected. The previous record, set in 2007, was officially broken on 27 August when satellite images averaged over five days showed the ice then extended 4.11 million sq km, a reduction of nearly 50% compared to just 40 years ago.

But since 27 August, the ice just kept melting – at nearly 40,000 sq km a day until a few days ago. Satellite pictures this weekend showed the cap covering only 3.49m sq km. This year, 11.7m sq km of ice melted, 22% more than the long-term average of 9.18m sq km. The record minimum extent is now likely to be formally called on Monday by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Colorado.