Lawson W. Brigham

Most professionals in the polar and maritime communities are well aware that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is developing a mandatory or binding Polar Code for ships operating in polar waters. Others outside the marine world may have heard of this significant international effort although much of the work is quite technical and remains under negotiation by the maritime states. This comment steps back from the Polar Code’s technical details and presents the broad themes and issues that are being addressed in this historic effort.

The Polar Code at its core addresses marine safety and environmental challenges for ships operating in remote, sometimes extreme, conditions where marine infrastructure is limited or non-existent. It is important to also note that the Code is directly related to the future protection of Arctic people, especially Arctic coastal communities and their traditional lifestyles. The IMO is seeking a uniform, nondiscriminatory set of rules and regulations for polar ships, which in the maritime industry will hopefully result in a level playing field for all marine operators. Importantly, the Code is a set of amendments to existing IMO safety and environmental protection instruments - the current maritime conventions are being amended to adapt and enhance ship systems for operations in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. Boundaries have been delineated in the Arctic (north of 60 degrees North in the Bering Sea with adjustments further north in the North Atlantic) and Antarctic (south of 60 degrees South) where the mandatory Polar Code will be applicable. A set of ship types have evolved in the negotiations where certain operating conditions require more extensive ship requirements. The new Code will likely require that commercial carriers and passenger ships more than 500 tons be certificated (all will be required to obtain a Polar Ship Certificate from the flag state) and also carry a Polar Operations Operating Manual that is unique to a given ship.


The history of the development of a polar code extends back to the end of the Soviet Union and initiatives by several nations including Germany and Canada. An IMO Outside Working Group (OWG) was established in 1993 and this experts group, led by Canada, drafted the framework for an initial Polar Code during a five-year period. Key strategies of the OWG included: building on existing IMO ship rules and standards for safety, environmental protection, and training (rather than replacement or duplication); focusing equally on the safety of human life and protection of the marine environment; and, using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the legal framework for the polar oceans while also considering the extensive knowledge and experience of the ice navigation regulatory regimes in Russia, Canada and the Baltic states (the Swedish-Finnish shipping rules for seasonal sea ice). Early in the OWG process, the IMO endorsed a set of Polar Code harmonization principles that included:

  • Ships are to have suitable ice strengthening for their intended voyages.
  • No oil shall be carried against the outer hull.
  • All crew members must be properly trained in the operations of polar vessels.
  • Appropriate navigational equipment shall be carried by all polar vessels.
  • Suitable survival equipment shall be carried for each person.
  • There will be a set of unified classes for polar ships operating in ice.
  • Consideration must be given to vessel installed power and endurance.

The IMO accepted the draft Polar Code from the OWG but decided as an alternative strategy to develop a set of guidelines titled IMO Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-Covered Waters. Approved in 2002 these Guidelines were voluntary, or recommendatory, and focused solely on the Arctic. During 2004-2009 the Arctic Council conducted the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), which in a key recommendation called for the mandatory application of relevant parts of the Guidelines and augmentation of global IMO ship safety and pollution prevention conventions. The Arctic states using AMSA as their policy framework, on which they had reached consensus and approval, voiced their strong view that mandatory IMO rules and regulations of Arctic shipping were required. Overlapping with the work of AMSA, the International Association of Classification Societies (IASC) during 2006-08 developed and adopted a set of unified requirements for Polar Class ships. Also in 2009 the IMO made a significant change to the Guidelines revising them to include ships operating in the Antarctic and changing the nature of the rules to address the more general region ‘polar waters’ rather than ice-covered waters (with the IMO title Guidelines for Ships Operating in Polar Waters). This change was recognition by IMO that many ships, particularly passenger vessels, are operating in polar waters in summer that are not necessarily ice-covered. Also, any future instrument would have bi-polar application as many polar ships operate at both ends of the world. These developments set the stage for establishment in 2010 of an IMO working group on addressing the need for mandatory requirements including crew competency and training.

The ongoing work at IMO on a mandatory Polar Code has been mainly conducted since 2010 by IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction and has covered a broad range of themes including: ship’s design and construction; required marine safety and lifesaving equipment; operational training, manning and experience of the polar mariners; and environmental protection challenges. The IMO Marine Safety Committee (MSC) has been considering amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The proposed draft amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) are being considered by the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC). MEPC is negotiating the mandatory application of the Polar Code for MARPOL Annexes I (prevention of pollution by oil); Annex II (prevention of pollution by noxious liquids); Annex IV (prevention of pollution by sewage); and Annex V (prevention of pollution by garbage). IMO’s Sub-Committee on Human Element Training and Watchkeeping (HTW) is currently reviewing the critical training and manning requirements for polar operators. Several practical elements of the proposed Polar Code have already been communicated by the IMO. A proposed Polar Ship Certificate would classify a ship for operation in polar waters as one of three types:

  • Category A - Ships designed for operation in polar waters in at least medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions (these ships correspond to IASC Polar Classes PC 1 through PC 5).
  • Category B - Ships designed for operation in polar waters in at least thin first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions (these ships correspond to IASC Polar Classes PC 6 & PC 7).
  • Category C - Ships designed to operate in open water or in ice conditions less severe than those included in Categories A and B.

These categories provide key flexibility since not all ships are intended for operation in the same ice conditions and importantly, the same polar navigation season. For example, a non-ice strengthened passenger vessel (which normally operates in open water) on a voyage in polar waters during summer would be classified as a Category C ship. The Polar Ship certificate would be approved by the flag state and would include information on polar ship category and ice class; operational limitations; and, required additional safety, communications and navigation equipment. Another practical requirement proposed is the Polar Waters Operational Manual, which will include ship specific information, such as operational capabilities and limitations, for the owners and operators of ships voyaging in polar waters.

The IMO anticipates that the MSC will adopt the SOLAS Polar Code amendments in November 2014. The MEPC should adopt the MARPOL Polar Code amendments by April 2015. It is important to note that the Polar Code is anticipated to have both mandatory and recommendatory (non-mandatory) provisions for safety and pollution prevention. Implementation of the Polar Code should begin in May 2015.

The IMO mandatory Polar Code will be a seminal and historic international governance regime for the polar seas. During the implementation phase of the Code from 2015-17, it is hoped the United States, as chair of the Arctic Council, will lead the Arctic states in advocacy for the Code within the global maritime community and to a global audience. The ratification of a new Polar Code hopefully by 2017 will set binding and enhanced international standards for new and existing commercial ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Ratification of these measures will herald a new era of protecting Arctic people and the marine environment.

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