The International Maritime Organization has just signed off on an International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, more simply known as the Polar Code. This was developed in response to already increasing shipping activity in the polar regions, which is expected to grow further in the Arctic in particular due to reductions in sea ice. New shipping lanes are opening, making it necessary to adopt measures to protect sailors and passengers in such dangerous conditions, as well as to protect the vulnerable polar regions from environmental disasters.


Polar code 2

The IMO states, “The Polar Code covers the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in waters surrounding the two poles.” It adds that “The Polar Code highlights the potential hazards of operating in polar regions, including ice, remoteness and rapidly changing and severe weather conditions, and provides goals and functional requirements in relation to ship design, construction, equipment, operations, training, and search and rescue, relevant to ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters.”

Related: Melting Arctic Ice Opens New Shipping Channel for Petroleum Products

The Polar Code was simultaneously adopted into the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) as a mandatory requirement for the protection of ships and those aboard them. However, because the Polar Code contains both safety and environment related provisions, it will also be mandatory under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) is expected to adopt the Code into MARPOL at its next session in May 2015, and the anticipated “entry-into-force” date for both conventions is 1 January, 2017.

Insurance firm Allianz states that in the Arctic region Russia alone “expects a 30-fold increase in shipping by 2020 and ice-free water over most of [the route’s] length by 2050.” Of the risks involved in increased shipping activity and the difficulty in enforcing the new code, WWF marine manager Simon Walmsley told the Guardian, “It’s good to have a framework, but how can you guarantee that those rules are adhered to? The risk is absolutely huge. One oil spill of a decent size will knock out so much in the Arctic. If you have a heavy fuel oil spill there are no recognised methods to clean under ice or during 24 hours of darkness. There is no response.” Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely that shipping companies desperate for a more cost-effective route (that’s also currently at much less risk of piracy than other shipping lanes) will be persuaded by this argument.

+ International Maritime Organization 

Via The Guardian

Photos by the U.S. Geological Survey and the NOAA via Flickr