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Linear trends in arctic sea-ice extent over the period 1979 to 2006 are negative in every month. This ice loss is best viewed as a combination of strong natural variability in the coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere system and a growing radiative forcing associated with rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the latter supported by evidence of qualitative consistency between observed trends and those simulated by climate models over the same period. Although the large scatter between individual model simulations leads to much uncertainty as to when a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean might be realized, this transition to a new arctic state may be rapid once the ice thins to a more vulnerable state. Loss of the ice cover is expected to affect the Arctic's freshwater system and surface energy budget and could be manifested in middle latitudes as altered patterns of atmospheric circulation and precipitation.