WASHINGTON, DC—High summer temperatures and ever-increasing levels of U.S. beverage consumption are causing ice cubes across the nation to melt at "an alarmingly unprecedented rate," the U.S. Department of Consumer Affairs reported Tuesday.

"We are looking at a nationwide trend of crisis proportions," said Clyde Simms, director of the USDCA's potables division and Clinton-appointed Beverage Czar. "If the current rate of melting continues, we may face a situation in which Americans are not assured the option of having an ice-cold beverage in their hands at any given moment."

Of the 28.9 billion tons of ice cubes produced commercially in August, it is estimated that less than half remains. With these frozen resources already depleted—most of them having been removed from proper storage facilities and left to melt in glasses, paper cups and styrofoam coolers—government officials are powerless to stem the tide.

"So far, we have been able to replenish our ice-cube reserves at a fast enough rate to maintain an acceptable level of comfort," Simms said. "But how long will this melting continue? How long can we keep up?"

Over the last decade, the rise in ice-cube melting has been offset by a corresponding increase in production of new cubes. But with the total number of cubes used rising exponentially each year, such a delicate balance may be hard to maintain for long, Simms said.

In the wake of Tuesday's announcement, supermarket, convenience-mart and liquor-store owners across the U.S. are anxiously monitoring their ice chests, hoping they will have enough bags of cubes and blocks to meet demand.

U.S. Ice Cubes Melting At Alarming Rate

"Where are the 18,000 pounds of ice we made just last month?" asked Brian Ketterling of Chicago's Central Refrigeration, which produces ice 24 hours a day. "I'll tell you where: nowhere. Even the puddles are gone."

"People say ice cubes are a renewable resource," Ketterling continued, "but try telling that to anyone facing a freezer full of empty trays when it's time to make a 7&7. The last thing on their minds is renewability; they need ice cubes, and they need them now."

According to scientists at the Schweppes Institute Of Liquid-Refreshment Temperature Management, the crisis may have been caused in part by the public's poor understanding of the ice cube's precarious nature.

"Americans may have set themselves up for disaster by willfully ignoring the Achilles' heel of the inexpensive, easy-to-use ice cube," said Schweppes head of research Robert Krupp. "Research shows that the inherent frozen-water matrix which makes up the basic form of the ice cube is extremely susceptible to structural failure when exposed to elevated temperatures."

"To make matters worse," Krupp said, "the cube's cooling power diminishes rapidly as its surface area decreases, resulting in a plummeting beverage cooling-efficiency index."

According to Krupp, many ice-cube-users don't even realize what is happening until it too late. "By that point, heat-induced lethargy may sap homeowners' will to refill their ice-cube trays, exacerbating the problem."

"I've been there and it was horrible, just horrible," said Travis McClintock of Fort Worth, TX. "Suddenly I've got a warm soda, my wife has a warm diet soda, and the kids are scared and crying. And my family wasn't alone."

In an effort to ease the current crisis, the USDCA is asking Americans to take conservation measures. These measures include pre-cooling beverages before adding ice cubes; washing and reusing still-viable cubes instead of throwing them out on the lawn; and always making sure to fill any empty or half-empty slots in ice trays.

In many larger cities, authorities are taking action to avert a full-scale disaster. Boston is granting each resident a second refrigerator and up to eight ice-cube trays, while Los Angeles County has forbidden residents to wash their cars, water their lawns or irrigate crops in order to dedicate the area's precious water reserves to freezing and cubing.

If the situation worsens, Simms said he will use the broad discretionary powers granted him under the Federal Emergency Management Disaster Act of 1994.

"We made it through the energy crisis," Simms said, "and, somehow, God help us, we'll make it through this."