There is an emerging need for regional applications of sea ice projections to provide more accuracy and greater detail to scientists, national, state and local planners, and other stakeholders. The present study offers a prototype for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study to bridge observational data, climate model simulations, and user needs. The study's first component is an observationally-based evaluation of Arctic sea ice trends during 1980–2008, with an emphasis on seasonal and regional differences relative to the overall pan-Arctic trend. Regional sea ice los has varied, with a significantly larger decline of winter maximum (January–March) extent in the Atlantic region than in other sectors. A lead-lag regression analysis of Atlantic sea ice extent and ocean temperatures indicates that reduced sea ice extent is associated with increased Atlantic Ocean temperatures. Correlations between the two variables are greater when ocean temperatures lag rather than lead sea ice. The performance of 13 global climate models is evaluated using three metrics to compare sea ice simulations with the observed record. We rank models over the pan-Arctic domain and regional quadrants, and synthesize model performance across several different studies. The best performing models project reduced ice cover across key access routes in the Arctic through 2100, with a lengthening of seasons for marine operations by 1–3 months. This assessment suggests that the Northwest and Northeast Passages hold potential for enhanced marine access to the Arctic in the future, including shipping and resource development opportunities.