Arctic sea ice usually grows to the largest expanse for winter on or about March 9.
The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center said the annual peak would have occurred about then and been even smaller than the eventual coverage of 5.76 million square miles had it not been for strong and frigid surface winds that swirled around the Arctic in mid-March.
The Colorado-based center said the latest measurements reinforce previous studies that have revealed ice around the North Pole is disappearing much faster than earlier predictions.
The ice has steadily declined by an average of 12 percent per decade since 1978.
Experts predict the Arctic will lose all of its summer ice within decades, if not sooner.
Photo: NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab