A University of Manitoba climate researcher says the growth of Arctic sea ice in 2008 is not cause for optimism.

What scientists are seeing is mostly thin, first-year ice that is likely to melt during the summer, David Barber is quoted as saying this week in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The amount of thicker multi-year ice that once covered the entire Arctic basin before it began melting decreased last year, Barber said.

Satellite images have recorded that sort of decrease for the last three decades, noting a decline of more than 10 per cent per decade.

The 2007 retreat in ice was the largest on record, allowing clear navigation of the Northwest Passage for the first time in human memory.

In another surprising development, satellite images taken last July showed a slab of ice measuring four square kilometres had broken away from the Ward Hunt Island Ice Shelf in Nunavut.

Canadian and U.S. researchers who studied the fracture said it was more evidence of accelerated climate change in the northern polar region.

With scientists predicting ice-free summers as soon as 2013, government and industry interest in the Arctic has peaked over the possibility of valuable new shipping lanes.

Ecosystems in danger from melting ice

But the melting ice is also evidence of rising temperatures across the globe and bad news for northern communities and the Arctic ecosystem, from plankton to polar bears.

"People were taking a certain amount of comfort in the fact that the ice rebounded a little bit in 2008," Barber said in a report published Friday in the Winnipeg newspaper.

"But the take-home message from our research results is that we shouldn’t be very comfortable with that because in fact we lost a lot more multi-year sea ice in 2008 than we did in 2007."

Barber led the $40-million Circumpolar Flaw Lead study, which ended its nine-month research stint in the high Arctic last August.

Some of the study’s preliminary findings will be presented to the public at a Geneva conference next week as International Polar Year draws to a close.

International Polar Year was touted as the largest-ever international program of scientific research focused on the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Barber's team travelled aboard a Canadian research icebreaker as part of the program.

The study was the first time scientists observed first-hand the formation of Arctic ice during the fall, said Barber, who called preliminary findings "dramatic" and "illuminating."

Melting ice has left large areas of open water that absorb heat from the sun.

This warming of the water delayed the formation of ice, despite cold air temperatures on land, Barber said.

A group of British polar explorers is currently in Nunavut, preparing to collect data on the depth of sea ice for a journey set to begin at the end of the month.

Members of the Catlin Arctic Survey will be travelling on foot across what the group says will be a "disintegrating and shifting sea ice" for a 90-day trek.