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The Polar Code—Bringing Order to Polar Shipping

RAdm. Jonathan White,
Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy,
Director of Task Force Climate Change


Global climate change is decreasing Arctic sea ice, opening the region during the summer melt season for growing commercial use. Consequently, surface shipping in the region is increasing, including cruise and cargo ships and vessels engaged in oil, gas and mineral exploration. Despite the warming climate, weather conditions in the Arctic remain largely harsh, hazardous and difficult to predict.

As with many harsh environments and the ecosystems they encompass, the Polar Regions are fragile and very susceptible to damage by human activities. These considerations have resulted in a need for special regulations to ensure the safety of people and the environment during polar operations.

Last November, the Maritime Safety Committee of the U.N. International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the draft “International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters.” Known as the “Polar Code,” it is the first binding set of international rules for high-latitude shipping. Ships that operate in the Polar Regions are subject to standard international rules for maritime operations, but the Polar Code provides additional requirements to address the unique challenges of polar operations.

The Polar Code focuses on ship safety and environmental protection, and covers matters relevant to ship design, construction, ancillary equipment, operations, crew training, certifications, and search and rescue protocols. It encompasses related parts of the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and amendments to SOLAS and prospective amendments to MARPOL will make the Polar Code’s enhanced safety and environmental requirements mandatory for Arctic and Antarctic shipping.

Before it comes into effect, the Polar Code must be formally adopted by the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee at its May 2015 meeting. If that happens, the new regulations will not be binding until 2017 for new ships and 2018 for existing ships.

For more than a decade the U.S. Navy has been considering the implications of a more accessible Arctic, encapsulated most recently in the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030, released in February 2014. This document outlines the actions the Navy will take to prepare itself for future Arctic operations and reflects guidance found in the U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region and the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy. The Polar Code aligns with all of these.

At this point, most of the Arctic remains a frontier, lacking the safety and navigation infrastructure that serve maritime operations in other parts of the world. These deficits include a lack of modern nautical charts, reliable weather and ice predictions, assured broadband communications, aids to navigation, and shore facilities. There is also a deficit in professional mariners with polar experience and expertise. In addition, the remoteness of the region from population centers would hamper rescue operations and environmental disaster response.

The increased shipping activity during the Arctic melt season indicates that the harsh environment does not dissuade ships from operating there and suggests that regulations for future shipping will be crucial in attempts to avoid mishaps and environmental disasters. The Polar Code is a first, important attempt to address these issues.

As the seasonal ice coverage continues to recede and human activity continues to increase, maritime insurance companies, offshore oil and gas concerns, large commercial shippers, and a wide array of ocean technology companies will benefit from guidelines that allow them to more effectively plan and execute safe operations. A well-regulated and patrolled Arctic Ocean, supported by all the Arctic nations, will help provide the order and stability needed to promote productivity and prosperity. As humankind ventures into this newly accessible ocean, the Polar Code will help protect the ships, crews and passengers who ply the waters of the austere Polar Regions, as well as their pristine environments.

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