A new study using satellite images of Antarctica reveals a remarkable spike in ice melt over the last five years. Although the extent of the ice was expanding since 1974, after 2014, Antarctica lost nearly 810,815 square miles of ice. Scientists aren’t ready to point their fingers at climate change as the culprit, but regardless of what is to blame, the loss in ice has an enormous impact on the South Pole’s ecosystem.

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“It went from its 40-year high in 2014, all the way down in 2017 to its 40-year low,” said the author of the study, climatologist Claire Parkinson.

There was a similar massive retreat of ice in the 1970s, which is why researchers aren’t sure if this is due to global warming — and if it is permanent. Despite the overall loss in ice over the past five years, there was some growth in 2017; scientists are hopeful that this could be part of the relatively normal cycling of ice.

Related: NASA finds cavity the size of Manhattan underneath Antarctic glacier

Regardless of what caused it and whether or not it is gone forever, the loss in ice is bad news for local species and for global warming in the rest of the world.

“Sea ice also affects the polar ecosystem, including penguins and whales and seals, petrels and albatrosses, krill, and a whole range of additional animals and marine plant life,” Parkinson said.

In addition, ice reflects about 50 to 70 percent of the sun’s rays back out into space, which helps keep the Earth’s surface cool. By comparison, EcoWatch reported that the dark blue ocean absorbs 90 percent of light.

“The plunge in the average annual extent means Antarctica lost as much sea ice in four years as the Arctic lost in 34 years,” tweeted a concerned Greta Thunberg.

Via EcoWatch

Image via John B. Weller / The Pew Charitable Trusts / U.S. Department of State