NEWS: Around the Arctic November 21, 2014 - 10:15 am

Marine body adopts new Polar Code for ships in Arctic waters

"An historic milestone in the organization’s work to protect ships and people aboard them"


Polar waters are expected to get safer with the adoption of the new Polar Code.

After years of top level negotiations and wrangling, the International Maritime Organization has finally adopted a global code for ships operating in polar waters and related amendments to the international Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and made those new rules mandatory.

This marks “an historic milestone in the organization’s work to protect ships and people aboard them, both seafarers and passengers, in the harsh environment of the waters surrounding the two poles,” the IMO said in a Nov. 21 news release.

The new code is expected to come into force Jan. 1, 2017.

It will apply to ships constructed after that date. Ships constructed before Jan. 1, 2017 will have a year to meet the requirements of the Polar Code.

The IMO said the Polar Code highlights the potential hazards of operating in polar regions, including ice, remoteness, and severe and rapidly changing weather conditions.

It also provides goals and requirements related to ship design, construction, equipment, operations, training, and search and rescue for ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

Conspicuously absent from the Polar Code is a ban on use of heavy fuel oil.

Environmentalists have said they fear a shipping accident that leads to a heavy fuel oil leakage could have dramatic consequences for Arctic ecosystems.

“The Polar Code doesn’t do nearly enough to tackle substantial risks posed by shipping: use of noxious heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, vessels operating with inadequate ice-strengthening and structural stability, and disturbances of wildlife, to name a few. The IMO and industry seem content to dismiss or put off discussion on issues that really matter —  that would truly diminish shipping’s impacts on the sensitive Arctic environment and the region’s residents,” said John Kaltenstein, marine policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, in reaction to the code’s adoption.

And of further concern is the impact of shipping on wildlife, says the Antarctic and Southern Ocean coalition.

“While the code includes requirements for ships to avoid marine mammals such as whales and walruses, it fails to consider seabird colonies, despite the fact that the Arctic and Antarctic coastlines contain some of the most significant bird colonies in the world,” said the organization’s Nov. 21 news release.

The Polar Code and SOLAS amendments were adopted during the 94th session of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, which met at the organization’s London headquarters Nov. 17 to Nov. 21.

Ships in the polar regions already have to comply with all relevant international standards adopted by IMO, but the newly-adopted SOLAS chapter XIV “Safety measures for ships operating in polar waters,” adds additional requirements.

But critics of the Polar Code say compliance will be hard to enforce.