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The dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice is ringing alarm bells in the minds of climate scientists, policy makers, and the public. The extent of perennial sea ice—ice that has survived a summer melt season—has declined 20% since the mid-1970s [Stroeue et al., 2005]. Its retreat varies regionally, driven by changes in winds and heating from the atmosphere and ocean.

Limited data have hampered attempts to identify which culprits are to blame, but new satellite-derived information provides insight into the drivers of change. A clear message emerges. The location of the summer ice edge is strongly correlated to variability in longwave (infrared) energy emitted by the atmosphere (downward longwave flux; DLF), particularly during the most recent decade when losses have been most rapid. Increasing DLF, in turn, appears to be driven by more clouds and water vapor in spring over the Arctic.