The benefits of new polar shipping routes and reportedly significant oil and gas reserves and mineral deposits has not gone unnoticed by the maritime industry. According to the Lloyd’s 2012 Arctic Opening Report, investment in the Arctic could exceed US$100 billion within the next decade.

While creating significant opportunity, opening the gateways to the polar seas has also highlighted the special degree of care required when ships navigate these volatile waters and the need to provide the highest levels of environmental protection of the marine ecosystem.

To combat the risks, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is developing the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code) to cover the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the waters surrounding the two poles. The Code aims to provide a comprehensive set of internationally agreed standards, including environmental and safety procedures and to serve as a binding international framework to protect the two polar regions from maritime risks.

The Code sets out goals and requirements, including:

  • Ship structure.
  • Stability and subdivision.
  • Watertight and weathertight integrity.
  • Machinery installations; operational safety.
  • Fire safety/protection.
  • Life-saving appliances and arrangements.
  • Safety of navigation.
  • Communications.
  • Voyage planning.
  • Manning and training.
  • Prevention of oil pollution.
  • Prevention of pollution from noxious liquid substances from ships.
  • Prevention of pollution by sewage from ships.
  • Prevention of pollution by discharge of garbage from ships.

A key change being introduced by the Polar Code is that ship operators will need to carry a Polar Ship Certificate, which would classify the ship as either (i) Category A ship (designed for operation in polar waters at least in medium first-year ice, which may include old ice inclusions); or Category B ship (a ship not included in category A, designed for operation in polar waters in at least thin first-year ice, which may include old ice inclusions); or Category C ship (a ship designed to operate in open water or in ice conditions less severe than those included in Categories A and B). Ships would also need to produce a Polar Water Operational Manual to provide the owner, operator, master and crew with adequate information regarding the ship’s operational capabilities and limitations in order to support their decision-making processes.

The Polar Code is making its way through the approval process and once approved will become mandatory, via amendments to the SOLAS and the MARPOL Conventions, for ships operating in the North and South poles. This should allow it to be implemented without conflicting with current practices. IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) has approved, in principle, the draft Code and related amendments to make the Code mandatory under SOLAS. The Polar Code is expected to be finalised at the end of this year.

Once ratified, the intention is for the Code to compel owners to mitigate the risks associated with operating within polar waters. One means of achieving this is to raise standards of ship design, to improve vessel safety in what is acknowledged to be a high-risk climate zone. This development is expected to be welcomed in particular by insurers.

While the Polar Code recognises the need to respond to the ever increasing number of ships navigating the North and South poles, critics are concerned that the Code is not stringent enough and that its implications have not been fully thought through. There is an increasingly popular view amongst environmentalists that there are important aspects that the Polar Code fails to address, particularly in relation to marine safety and environmental protection issues.

The Code does however come as the first step in enhancing Arctic marine safety and environmental protection and it is likely that additional research and understanding will eventually bring stronger protections to the polar regions.