Scientists said polar icecaps are melting at a much faster pace than expected - fueling rapid climate change and raising the specter of an unprecedented and dangerous rise in sea levels.

Thousands of scientists who contributed to the International Polar Year survey issued that conclusion in a United Nations report, released in Geneva.

A Polar Year statement Wednesday said researchers found Arctic Sea ice levels at their lowest point since satellites began measuring the northern ice mass three decades ago.

The head of the British-based Committee on Antarctic Research, Colin Summerhayes, told the Associated Press scientists no longer believe the Antarctic thaw is limited to a narrow stretch of the continent.  

He said the meltdown is now seen extending to the far western reaches of Antarctica.

The report also said researchers have found large pools of carbon stored as methane in the melting polar permafrost.  Scientists have identified the large-scale release of methane into the atmosphere as one of the chief causes of global warming. 

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.