IMO’s Polar Code meets Arctic navigation challenges

Caption: The Polar Code is tightening scrutiny of Arctic navigation safety. Credit: ABB

Melting sea ice is increasing the navigation season for vessel operators seeking shortcuts across the top of the world – shortcuts that bring with them safety and environmental challenges not found anywhere else.

A webinar hosted earlier this year by SAS sister publication Fairplay highlighted some of those challenges and associated risks, and how the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Polar Code is helping meet and reduce them.

The Arctic and Antarctic regions to which the code applies make up approximately 15% of the world’s oceans. Their extreme weather, low temperatures, remoteness, and landscape especially vulnerable to environmental damage require special considerations for navigation and communications.

The longer navigation seasons in the Arctic are increasing the amount of time during the year that shipowners are able to transit the region’s two main shipping lanes, the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route – alternatives to the Suez and Panama Canal routes – allowing vessel operators to save time and money.

But conditions on those routes change rapidly during the season, warned James Bond, director of advisory services for the American Bureau of Shipping, and this can present a significant navigational hazard. In November, for example, ice cover increases by up to 50,000 km2 per day – an area roughly the size of the state of Iowa.

To counter those hazards, Bond said the IMO’s Polaris system, developed as part of the Polar Code, “allows you to determine the risk level of your operation for a particular vessel’s ice class for a given ice condition or forecast”.

Chris Rabalais, an engineer with the US Coast Guard’s systems engineering division, explained during the webinar that there had been concern about the ‘goal-based’ aspect of the Polar Code, and how flag and port states ensure consistent application of the code “when compliance may look different based on the risk assessments that are conducted” for a given vessel or fleet.

“For port state control examinations, it’s going to be the same type of interaction that we regularly have with vessel captains: that the vessel is properly certificated and the operations manual is in place. Short of evidence providing grounds for conducting a more detailed exam, “that’s going to be how we approach compliance”, Rabalais said.

Compliance enforcement is one of the concerns for Tim Keane, senior manager of Arctic operations for Fednav, which operates one of the biggest fleets in Arctic waters.

However, “I do believe there’s a pragmatism and a practicality that will be applied, in both Canada and the US, and that it will be applied reasonably and across the board so that everybody knows what is required to comply,” Keane said during the discussion.

China recently announced that it intended to get more involved in the Arctic and it is establishing a ‘Polar Silk Road’, which could put pressure on the United States to become more involved in the region.

“We’re seeing lots of enquiries coming out of China – and it’s more than curiosity,” Bond confirmed. “We’re starting to discuss with them shipping in the Arctic and how often the Northern Sea Route is open, and a lot of questions from a major shipping company asking about windows of opportunity.”

Because it is implemented through existing IMO conventions, namely, MARPOL and SOLAS, the port state control regulatory process for enforcing the code is already well established, Rabalais stressed. The framework also provides an avenue for improving the code’s standards as conditions change, he said.

“So we gain more experience with the Polar Code and its implementation, we have a very clear mechanism for continually refining and improving it. We want to ensure operations are done in a safe and environmental way.”

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