In December 2007, a massive fracture of the Beaufort ice pack was observed west of Banks Island. The image, from Jan. 9, clearly shows this fracture. ((Environment Canada/NOAA) )

A massive fracture discovered this winter in the Beaufort Sea ice pack could be a sign of things to come as climate change continues to warm the Arctic, according to a leading climate researcher.

The fracture, first discovered in December, occurred in the Beaufort ice pack off the west coast of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories.

David Barber, a climate scientist with the University of Manitoba, said the central ice pack normally moves away from the coast during the winter as coastal ice expands and pushes it into the sea. But usually when this occurs, there is enough old ice in the central ice pack to resist the coastal ice.

That's not the case this year, said Barber, who noted coastal ice pushed by high pressure systems has sent the central ice pack deep into the Beaufort Sea and towards Siberia, creating a massive fissure.

"It’s the first time we've seen it happening so dramatically like this because we lost so much ice last summer," said Barber, who last year led a team of scientists aboard the ice breaker Amundsen to the Beaufort Sea to study the changes.

"We’re starting to think this is what the future's going to look like," Barber told CBC News.

The Amundsen is wintering in the ice of the Beaufort Sea to study the phenomenon of the "flaw lead," or the natural passageway between coastal and sea ice.

Environment Canada has posted an image from Jan. 9 of the fracture, as well as animation using pictures taken by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites.

Barber said the expedition has proved invaluable, if not particularly encouraging.

"It’s been an extremely interesting year but kind of depressing," he said. "It’s interesting in a bad way."

The Circumpolar Flaw Lead System study, part of the International Polar Year program, began in October 2007 and will conclude in August 2008. The study will look at how changes in the physical conditions affect biological processes in the Arctic.

Scientists worry rising temperatures will adversely affect Arctic ecosystems and also reduce the amount of ice cover in the North, leading the ocean to absorb more sunlight and contribute to more accelerated warming.