Improving safety of navigation in the polar regions

A Polar Code is being developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to regulate maritime transport in the extreme conditions of the Arctic and Antarctic. The draft code will be reviewed at the next Maritime Safety Committee meeting, to be held in November 2014. The IMO is consulting with the Arctic Council in developing this document, as shipping and oil and gas exploration increase in that region.

Travel through polar seas is complicated, not just by ice and extreme weather, but also by lack of detailed navigation charts and other aids, and more limited communication systems. Rescue and clean up operations, should an accident occur, are much more difficult, hence the emphasis by IMO on prevention of problems.

Mandatory safety measures for operating in polar regions

Under the proposed code, ships would be required to have a Polar Ship Certificate to operate in the areas around the North and South Poles. Ships would be classified based on their ability to function in ice and travel in designated areas based on that classification.

Vessels would also be required to carry a Polar Water Operational Manual designed to guide staff through travel decision-making based on ship structure, navigation and communication capabilities, and ability to prevent pollution incidents, among other considerations.

Importance for Arctic and Antarctic wildlife

Remote areas, with severe weather make response to oiled wildlife difficult and often dangerous. A storm with gale force winds and high seas stopped rescue operations for several days during the Selendang Ayu incident in Alaska. By the time teams were allowed back into the field many of the over 600 oiled birds that had been observed during initial spill surveys were already dead.

In more remote parts of the Arctic and Antarctic it would likely take days, if not weeks for equipment, supplies and experienced personnel to reach the affected area, at which point successful rescue and rehabilitation for release back to the wild would be highly unlikely, even in the best of weather. A strong, prevention based Polar Code can help reduce the likelihood of such incidents.


The International Maritime Organization

The Arctic Council