A never-ending story

Daily Parse | The Polar Code has always been about more than just strong hulls and warm parkas. Even more details may be added to the plot

The goalposts are out there somewhere (Photo: Fednav/Timothy Keane)

Kevin McGwin

The Polar Code, a set of regulations for ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic, is designed to do two things: provide for safe ship operation and protect the polar environment.

Some of the things it requires of those who operate ships are obvious. For example, ships must have a way to remove ice from bridge windows and there must be enough warm clothing for everyone on board. Ships themselves must be strong enough to withstand the impact of the type of ice they can expect to meet.

The process of living up to the Polar Code is far less straightforward, however. In some cases, those responsible for implementing the rules – known as flag states – are not aware that they exist. At least some control will take place in ports far from the region. In general, there is uncertainty about who should enforce them.

Crews must also be trained in polar operations, but experienced Arctic mariners fret that even if crews are qualified on paper, they may still fall short due to a lack of experience working in ice. Even Sovcomflot, a Russian shipping company that is sailing LNG on the Northern Sea Route, had trouble finding enough adequate staff, according to Viktor Olersky, Russia’s deputy transport minister.

Time will change some of this, say regulators, though they admit that there may always be a tendency towards leniency, since most of the ships that operate in the Arctic will not be operating there most of the time.

“We do not want to make the Polar Code too tough,” says one. “Ships need to have the opportunity to be prepared to sail in icy waters, without imposing rules that would be a burden on experienced crews.”

To make sure the industry is aware of the rules, the Arctic Council has joined with the IMO three times in the past year to hold meetings to inform shippers how they should be implemented. Meanwhile, insurers, classification societies and Pame, an Arctic Council working group, have all set up websites for shippers seeking to understand how the rules apply to them.

They may soon need to be updated. Fewer than 18 months since the Polar Code came into effect on Jan 1, 2017, there is already plenty of talk about making changes to it. To date, much of the discussion has centred on the fact that it does not address heavy fuel oils, which are already banned in the Antarctic and around Svalbard.

The next step will be whether the Polar Code’s safety regulations, also known as Part I, should apply to a wider range of ships. Part II, applying to environmental regulations, already does. This is because its rules are mandated by Marpol, a convention that applies to all ships,

Part I is mandated by the Solas Convention, which applies to all vessels that carry passengers and to merchant ships weighing more than 500 gross tonnes. Fishing vessels and pleasure yachts are both exempt, however, and the MSC, an International Maritime Organisation committee, will use part of its meeting this week and next to discuss whether that should continue to be the case.

When it was adopted, the Polar Code was cheered for what one official described as “removing the mystery about operating in the Arctic”. Shippers may agree, even if the additions to the plot may make an already difficult story even harder to follow.




Click to enlarge or for other languagespolar-code-environment-graphic

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The Daily Parse offers a summary and analysis of the main points about a current topic related to the Arctic. Each article includes external articles and resources to give readers a place to begin if they would like to learn more.

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