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The Polar Code is an international regime for ships that operate in polar waters, adopted in 2014 by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). More information about the IMO can be found in the PDF attachment to this post. Essentially, the Polar Code establishes regulations for all shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, principally relating to the design of ships and the navigation of ice. Russia’s previous Deputy Minister of Transport, Victor Olerskiy, announced in 2014, at the time of drafting the Polar Code, that Russia, along with other IMO members, would not be implementing measures that would prohibit shipping companies from accessing the Arctic routes.

Arctic Shipping Routes

There are currently five significant routes that vessels can use to traverse all or part of the Arctic waters. The three main routes are the Transpolar Sea Route, the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage, followed by the Arctic Bridge and the Northern Sea Route. Navigability of all these routes depends on fluctuations in the expanse of the ice floe, limiting the times of year at which ships can successfully make the crossing. Some of the routes require ice-breaking capacity almost year-round, while others remain open for several months each year. Projections regarding the melting of the ice floes indicate that these routes will become increasingly accessible, opening up potential new opportunities for shipping in the Arctic region.

Diversification in the Shipping Industry

As these new shipping routes became increasingly navigable, the necessity for the Polar Code to be developed arose. The Polar Code is a binding international framework agreed by IMO member states, considering existing treaties for both environmental protection and shipping safety. The Polar Code was drafted by the IMO and its member states and was approved by the Marine Safety Commission in 2014, coming into effect for new ships in 2017 and for existing ships in 2018. In an address in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the 2014 Danish Maritime Forum, Victor Olerskiy discussed the need to diversify transportation routes across the global shipping industry, which had been suffering from the tough economic climate. Olerskiy pointed out that the introduction of unfeasible requirements as part of the Polar Code that would limit the route may well eradicate the potential advantages. Olerskiy anticipated that the Arctic routes, which in 2014 were still in their infancy, had the potential to increase tonnage from 1.2 million tonnes in 2013 to as much as 60 million tonnes by 2030.

In the infographic attachment, view some of the statistics for shipping in the Northern Sea Route between 2011 and 2015, the years in which the Polar Code was being drafted.

Polar Code Safety Measures

Part One of the Polar Code focuses on safety measures for ships navigating Arctic waters. The safety chapters set out functional requirements and goals for ships, including requirements for structure, operational safety, navigational safety, communications, training and manning of ships, weather-tight and watertight integrity, stability and subdivision, fire safety and protection, life-saving arrangements and appliances, machinery installations and voyage planning. This includes classification for the Polar Ship Certificate, which establishes the types and extents of ice conditions that the vessel is suitable for sailing through.

Polar Code Environmental Measures

Environmental measures covered by the Polar Code include the prevention of pollution by oil, sewage, garbage or noxious liquid substances. The Code includes restrictions and prohibitions on the disposal of these materials unless performed in line with the relevant MARPOL Annex. Learn more about MARPOL in the embedded short video.

The Polar Code came into force at the beginning of 2017 and is mandatory under both MARPOL and SOLAS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.