Navigating the Arctic

Diminishing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas is allowing navigation in previously impassable waters. Intercontinental voyages through the Arctic during the summer months, either via the Northwest Passage north of Canada and Alaska, or the Northern Sea Route north of Norway and Russia, shave thousands of miles off voyages between the same ports that currently proceed through the Panama or Suez Canals. While many experts doubt that regular passage through the Arctic will be possible for decades, there is broad agreement that voyages to Arctic destinations in connection with resource extraction will increase.

Cruise shipping and fishing in the Arctic are also projected to increase. The M/V CRYSTAL SERENITY is scheduled to carry some 1,700 passengers and crew from Anchorage to New York via the Northwest Passage in August 2016. As this is being written, the Cyprus flag Arctic cruise vessel M/V ORTELIUS is under tow to the Svalbard Islands in the Norwegian Arctic, after suffering engine trouble with 146 people on board.

The Polar Code - What is it?

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), well-aware that shipping in the Arctic and the Antarctic is increasing, has worked for several years to develop the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code). The Polar Code will become mandatory through amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention to Prevent Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The Code is scheduled for entry into force on January 1, 2017, and will be applicable to existing ships as of their first intermediate or renewal survey after January 1, 2018. Existing ships will be exempt from certain requirements that would be impractical to implement.

In the Arctic, the Polar Code generally covers waters north of 60 degrees north latitude, deviating from that line to include all of Greenland within defined polar waters and to exclude Iceland and continental Norway. The Code covers all Antarctic waters south of 60 degrees south latitude.

Navigation in the remote high latitudes of the Arctic is, of course, particularly risky. In addition to the obvious dangers that sea ice poses to a vessel’s hull, it can also threaten a vessel’s propulsion and steering equipment. Ice can be drawn into a vessel’s sea suctions (which draw seawater into the vessel to cool its engines and other equipment) causing them to clog. Ice can also accumulate on a vessel’s topsides, causing stability issues and interfering with on-deck operations. The Arctic’s extremely low temperatures, extended periods of daylight and darkness, and lack of physical and communications infrastructure, all create unique and difficult issues for mariners. The region’s environment is, moreover, extremely sensitive. Oil spilled into cold water takes a very long time to degrade, and many of the region’s four million inhabitants rely on the natural environment for their sustenance.

The Polar Code’s stated goal is “to provide for safe ship operation and the protection of the polar environment by addressing risks present in polar waters and not adequately mitigated by other instruments” of the IMO, such as SOLAS and MARPOL. It is “intended to cover the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles – ship design, construction and equipment; operational and training concerns; search and rescue; and, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and ecosystems of the polar regions.”

The Polar Code - Covering Safety and Pollution Prevention

The Polar Code is structured in two parts, one covering safety and the other pollution prevention. Both have subparts containing required and recommended provisions.

The Code requires vessels intending to operate in polar waters to apply for a Polar Ship Certificate, to be issued by the vessel’s flag state, or a classification society acting on the flag state’s behalf, after a survey. For the purposes of the Polar Code, vessels will be placed into three categories:

  1. Category A includes ships designed for operation in polar waters in “medium first year ice” (defined as ice with not more than one winter’s growth, between 70 to 120 cm thick).
  2. Category B covers ships not included within Category A designed for operation in “thin first year ice” (30 to 70 cm thick).
  3. Category C covers any other ship operating in polar waters.

The categories are used in the Code for varying regulations relating to surveys, structural scantlings, ice damage stability, machinery (such as propulsion and steering equipment) and oil pollution prevention.

The Polar Code also requires a Polar Waters Operations Manual, similar to the safety management documentation required by the ISM Code on SOLAS-certified ships. The Manual is to consider the hazards identified in the Introduction section of the Code and assess them against the probability that a hazard will occur given the intended operations of the vessel. Some of the procedures to be addressed in the Manual are: vessel operations in ice and low temperatures; what to do when encountering conditions that exceed the vessel’s capabilities and limitations; communications and navigation in high latitudes; voyage planning, and contacting emergency response providers.