The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is developing a draft mandatory International Code of Safety for vessels cruising in polar waters (Polar Code), to 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. The work is being co-ordinated by the Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction (SDC).

"The safety of vessel 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," a statement explains. "Trends and forecasts indicate that polar shipping and cruising will grow in volume and diversify in nature over the coming years and these challenges need to be met without compromising either safety or the sustainability of the polar environments."

Hanse Explorer. Credit: Eyos Expeditions

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 crew and the remoteness of the areas makes rescue operations difficult and costly. Cold temperatures may reduce the effectiveness of numerous components of a vessel, ranging from deck machinery and emergency equipment to sea suctions. Furthermore, when ice is present, it can impose additional loads on the hull, propulsion system and appendages.

The proposed Code would require vessels intending to operate in the defined waters of the Antarctic and Arctic to apply for a Polar Ship Certificate, which would classify the vessel as category A, B or C ship depending on the design for operation in ice. The issuance of a certificate would require an assessment, taking into account the anticipated range of operating conditions and hazards the vessel may encounter in the polar waters. The assessment would include information on identified operational limitations, and plans or procedures or additional safety equipment necessary to mitigate incidents with potential safety or environmental consequences.
Whilst Arctic and Antarctic waters have a number of similarities, there are also significant differences. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by an ocean. The Antarctic sea ice retreats significantly during the summer season or is dispersed by permanent gyres in the two major seas of the Antarctic: the Weddell and the Ross. Thus there is relatively little multi-year ice in the Antarctic. Conversely, Arctic sea ice survives many summer seasons and there is a significant amount of multi-year ice. Whilst the marine environments of both Polar seas are similarly vulnerable, response to such challenge should duly take into account specific features of the legal and political regimes applicable to their respective marine spaces.
For more information on the proposed Polar Code, please visit the IMO website:

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