Polar code close to implementation

18 Feb 2014
With increasing use of Arctic and Antarctic waters by large ships, IMO is close to finalising a new code of safety

With increasing use of Arctic and Antarctic waters by large ships, IMO is close to finalising a new code of safety

Dag Pike looks at the increasing focus on Arctic shipping which has led to the IMO implementing a new code of safety to ensure safe ships and navigation in polar waters

The International Maritime Organization is close to finalising a draft mandatory International Code of Safety for ships operating in polar waters. This safety code, commonly known as the Polar Code, is being coordinated by the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction (SDC). During 2013, the SDC made significant progress in further developing a draft Polar Code, in particular the finalisation of a draft chapter on environmental protection. A meeting of the Polar Code Working Group was held in October 2013, to further progress this work. The aim is to finalise the draft Code in 2014 for adoption by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).

The Polar Code will cover the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles – ship design, construction and equipment, operational and training concerns, search and rescue and, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and eco-systems of the polar regions.

Agreement in principle has been reached on definitions for the different categories of ship to be covered by the Code, as follows:

  • Category A means a ship capable to operate at least in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions in accordance with an ice class at least equivalent to those acceptable to IMO;
  • Category B means a ship capable of operation in sea ice conditions other than those included in Category A with an ice class at least equivalent to those acceptable to IMO;
  • Category C means any ship which is not a Category A or Category B ship.

It has also been agreed that that all ships operating in polar waters should have a Polar Ship Certificate and a Polar Water Operation Manual.

The safety of ships operating in the harsh, remote and vulnerable polar areas and the protection of the pristine environments around the two poles have always been a matter of concern for IMO and many relevant requirements, provisions and recommendations have been developed over the years. This particularly applies in the Arctic where the Northern Sea Route is attracting more ships every year as the ice coverage retreats.

“Forecasts indicate that polar shipping will grow in volume and diversify in nature over the coming years and these challenges need to be met without compromising either safety of life at sea or the sustainability of the polar environments” commented an IMO spokesperson.

“At present there are no international conventions that regulate Arctic shipping operations so in principle the same rules apply for sunny sailing in the Mediterranean as for the Arctic”, said Sturia Henriksen, director general of the Norwegian Ship Owners Association. “It is a cold place, it has a hostile environment, it is enshrouded in darkness for half of the year, the weather is violent and extreme, the distances are vast, the area is remote from large population centres, it is sparsely populated and it is far from any basic infrastructure.”

“Ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic environments are exposed to a number of unique risks. Poor weather conditions and the relative lack of good charts, communication systems and other navigational aids pose challenges for mariners. The remoteness of the areas makes rescue or clean-up operations difficult and costly. Cold temperatures may reduce the effectiveness of numerous components of the ship, ranging from deck machinery and emergency equipment to sea suctions. When ice is present, it can impose additional loads on the hull, propulsion system and appendages.” said the IMO spokesperson.

The Polar Code will cover the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating around the two poles. It is envisaged that heavy fuel oils will be banned although an exception is envisaged for vessels engaged in securing the safety of ships or in a search and rescue operation. Already passenger ships operating in these remote areas are required to have contingency plans for emergencies

In addition, the detailed voyage and passage plan for ships operating in Arctic or Antarctic waters should include the following factors: conditions when it is not safe to enter areas containing ice or icebergs because of darkness, swell, fog and pressure ice; safe distance to icebergs; and presence of ice and icebergs, and safe speed in such areas.

Last year 71 ships made the transit of the Northern Sea Route and around 1,000 ships travelled into the high Arctic, which is defined as the waters above 72° N, and more are expected in the coming years as the oil, gas and mineral resources in the area are exploited. The Polar Code will set stringent rules regarding pollution, safety of life, training, certification, and watch-keeping and it will prescribe ships’ standards.

Insurers have welcomed the introduction of the Polar Code. “Up till its implementation each individual voyage had to be agreed under a separate policy. With the Polar Code we can have a standard policy for all ships”, said Stein Are Hansen of the Norwegian Hull Club. Some environmental groups are concerned that the Polar Code does not go far enough, because it omits aspects such as ballast water.

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