The Polar Code, One Year On

Despite its shortcomings, the Code has been a huge step forward in safeguarding the world?s oceans.


Published Apr 6, 2018 8:39 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2018 edition.)

On January 1, 2017, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Polar Code came into effect. The functional, risk-based Code establishes mandatory regulations and standards for vessels operating in ice-covered waters to, in its own words, “Provide for safe ship operation and the protection of the polar environment by addressing risks present in polar waters and not adequately mitigated by other instruments of the Organization.” 

One year into the Code’s implementation, now is a good time to take stock of how its regulations on issues ranging from vessel design to search-and-rescue are playing out.

Although polar shipping may seem to be a 21st-century phenomenon, the Polar Code has been in the making for decades. Lawson Brigham, Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and former Coast Guard officer and Captain of the USCG Polar Sea, one of America’s two heavy icebreakers, recalls attending the first meeting of a specially established IMO Outside Working Group in 1993. Over the next five years, the Canada-led group drafted the first framework for the Code. 

Brigham speaks admirably of what it accomplished: “It’s truly a seminal advance in governance to get the whole of the maritime states to agree.” Yet he feels the Code’s value has not yet been adequately appreciated: “The global maritime community, if not the global community, should be satisfied, but I don’t get that sense because it’s very technical.”

Too Technical?

Brigham does not exaggerate the Code’s level of technicality. When demonstrating compliance, for instance, ice damage is limited to a longitudinal extent that is “4.5% of the upper ice waterline length if centred forward of the maximum breadth on the upper ice waterline.” 

To make sense of these regulations, Lloyd’s Register (LR), a global engineering firm and maritime classification society, helps shipowners identify compliance gaps between their vessels and Code standards. Alicia Nash, LR's Polar Code Implementation Project Manager, explains that this involves “undertaking a gap analysis comparing the prescriptive requirements from the Polar Code and the actual vessel’s equipment provision by reviewing vessel drawings and the contractual technical specification.” 

This analysis helps ships set a baseline for Code preparation so they know what additional equipment they might need. LR also facilitates operational assessments ranging from Category C yachts to Category A icebreakers to identify appropriate risk-mitigation measures. The company’s Arctic Technology Knowledge Network comprises key approval surveyors around the world who know what’s required for a successful initial Polar Code survey. 

Once a ship is compliant, the owner can obtain Polar Code certification from a classification society like LR or DNV GL. Oslo-based DNV GL has already issued a number of certificates, and an additional 20 vessels are at different stages of the certification process. More are likely forthcoming since DNV GL has over 4,400 ice-class vessels. 

Says Morten Mejlænder-Larsen, Discipline Leader, Arctic Technology & Operation at DNV GL-Maritime, “Many of them intend to go into polar waters sooner or later,” meaning they will eventually need a Polar Code certificate. For classification societies, this represents new business opportunities.

Search-and-Rescue Challenges

Though more vessels are sailing to the Arctic and Antarctic, the amount of infrastructure onshore is not increasing in step. This is worrisome for search-and-rescue preparedness. In more remote reaches, several days in sub-zero temperatures and freezing water may pass before help arrives. 

To prepare for this scenario, the Code mandates that life-saving equipment protect all persons onboard for a minimum of five days – no easy feat. In fact, Mejlænder-Larsen says that having adequate life-saving equipment onboard is the Code’s “main challenge.”

Two search-and-rescue expedition (SARex) tests conducted in April 2016 and 2017 in the Barents Sea off Spitsbergen at 81°N revealed that equipment suppliers still have their work cut out for them. In the first test, after 24 hours the standard Norsafe Miriam 8.5 lifeboat had to be abandoned due to uncomfortably cold temperatures inside. Even after upgrades were made, a Norsafe presentation from last year admitted that “It is still very unlikely you can survive the minimum five days in a raft.” 

That hasn’t stopped the company from striving to meet the challenge. Erik Mostert, Norsafe’s Project Manager, Technical - R/D, maintains that when it comes to ensuring a five-day survival time for passengers and crew, “Norsafe has found a clear way to attack this goal with a very detailed risk analysis of all phases of equipment, both stowed and during evacuation, survival and rescue.” 

Some of the improvements Norsafe has made involve better ventilation, condensation, and even features that wouldn’t immediately come to mind like a curtain in front of the toilet to provide privacy. Norsafe is tackling other projects that push the envelope even further. Mostert hints, “One customer has even requested a 20-day survival time,” illustrating the extremes of today’s polar shipping industry. 

Other critical solutions for safe polar shipping are emerging as well. Fassmer, a German company, is crafting lifeboats that meet the Code’s requirements and is witnessing strong demand from the cruise industry. Jens Hinsch, head of Fassmer’s Boat & Davit Division, says, “These lifeboats will be equipped with additional insulation and a fuel-based heating system, and loose equipment like water portions and food rations will be increased to have enough for at least five days.” In addition, the communication system will have batteries that last over this extended period to guide rescuers to the boat’s position. 
Meanwhile, Torbjørn Svensen of Norway’s Hansen Protection AS, a global leader in sea-survival equipment, believes ships should also be equipped with standard survival suits and life jackets for everyone on board.

Ice Radar

In Canada, a country with a long history of polar exploration, Rutter’s state-of-the-art sigma S6 Ice Navigator™ is focused on making sailing through icy waters safer. Although the Code does not require ice radar, it recommends it, and that has driven a lot of industry awareness. 

“We're getting a lot of requests from vessels we probably wouldn’t have had a touch on before,” says Sales Director Stephen Hale. "We’re doing work on ships going through the Arctic and Antarctic, from cruise, oil and gas, governmental ships and research vessels.” Still, he thinks the Code could be improved. For instance, while ice radar is recommended in shallow water, deep water is equally important. 

Rutter has also been updating its system to automatically identify open water leads, an advance that will help the increasing number of ships navigating polar waters. “Ice radar in the past has been very much on the visualization side,” Hale explains, “so you can look at it and get an image. But that’s changed over the last year, and it’s now more about detection and automatic analysis to show where those water leads and ice ridges are to give you more information about safe transit.” 

Even as suppliers tweak their equipment, it’s not always clear when they can call it a day. This is because the Code is goal-based: It states what vessels should aim for but doesn’t give details on how to achieve these goals. It also sometimes does not even provide minimum requirements or clarify how compliance will be documented. 

Petri Mikola, Senior Vice President, Technical Services at Arctia, the Finnish state-owned operator of the country’s icebreaking fleet, says, “There are some areas still pending, and development work is needed.” Similarly, DNV GL’s Morten notes, “I think it will take some time for IMO to decide and be more specific, and then for the industry and equipment suppliers to be able to supply the right equipment.”

The Human Dimension
Meeting technical standards and supplying equipment is only half the equation in successfully implementing the Code. Brigham, the former Coast Guard officer involved in the early days of its drafting, says that, ultimately, it’s the human dimension that matters: “It's who’s in the pilot house, what’s the competency of the mariners, and what’s their training in the polar regions – not just simulators. That’s the real issue for all of us dealing with Arctic navigation, and it’s probably the biggest challenge for implementing and enforcing the Polar Code.” 

To deal with the challenge of training people adequately, companies like ABB Marine & Ports offer ice navigator training and Polar Code certification. ABB’s five-day H938 course teaches vessel operators the necessary skills for operating the company’s Azipod® propulsor in ice conditions and how to identify different types of ice and their risks. Samuli Hänninen, who specializes in icebreaking vessels at ABB, says, “At the moment, the majority of our customers are from the oil and gas sector. In addition, we are able to support crews with our ice expertise, for example, with expedition cruise vessels. Current customers have been very satisfied with the workshop and course.”

Phase Two

Although it’s still the early days for the Polar Code, stakeholders and activists are already setting out their goals for a second phase of negotiations. Øystein Jensen, an expert on polar shipping and the Law of the Sea at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, believes that while the current Code strikes a good balance, it is somewhat watered down in certain areas: “For instance, fishing vessels and vessels less than 500GT do not need to comply with the regulations. Air pollution is not mentioned. Ballast water management provisions are recommendatory only.” 

Andrew Dumbrille, Senior Specialist, Sustainable Shipping at the World Wildlife Fund-Canada, points to heavy fuel oil (prohibited in Antarctic waters but not the Arctic), underwater noise and gray water as issues requiring attention in phase two. He is also hopeful about increased community and Indigenous engagement in the next round of negotiations: “I think the movement is growing and things do look positive for engaging those people who are directly impacted by shipping in the Arctic.” 

This would mark yet another advance for the Polar Code which, despite its shortcomings, has proved to be an important innovation in safeguarding the world’s seas. – MarEx  

Polar expert Mia Bennett teaches at the University of Hong Kong.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.