The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is actively discussing what specific amendments should be made to existing maritime regulations to cover situations unique to polar waters. Increased shipping activity on the Northern Sea Route and exploration by the gas and oil industry put the determination of a Polar Code on the top of the IMO action-item list when it met in Norway in January 2014, according to secretary-general Koji Sekimizu.
Summer sea ice has never been at such a low level in the Arctic; it has decreased by 66 percent in the last 30 years. Maritime nations working with the International Maritime Organization are looking at the huge natural resources and opportunities this situation brings into play. A tenth of the world’s undiscovered oil and a third of its undiscovered gas is believed to be in Arctic waters. Additionally, the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia would reduce transit time to Asian and European ports by 40 percent.
Safety, increased ship traffic and insurance considerations are high on the agenda. The harsh conditions of both the northern and southern polar regions is particularly challenging for vessels. Covered items in the proposed Polar Code will include ship design and construction, operations and training, safety and environmental protection matters.
In December, 2013, the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalsky was trapped in Antarctic ice initiating a rescue with dramatic complications. The IMO feels that the Polar Code will emphasize the need for planning and safeguards in hazardous waters and, as well, help to protect these remote environments.
The new polar rules could be in force as early as 2016.
A chapter of the code regarding safety measures for ships operating in polar waters was agreed upon and will be forwarded to the Maritime Safety Committee which plans to discuss it in May 2014, at their next meeting.
A preliminary draft amendment of one section of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which has been agreed upon in principle at its first session in late January 2014, will make mandatory certain pollution prevention measures. The Marine Environment Protection Committee will meet early April to consider it.
The draft of the chapter pertaining to training and manning vessels in polar regions will be reviewed this month (February 2014) by the Sub-Committee on Human Element Training and Watchkeeping.
The new Code would require a Polar Ship Certificate for ships intending to operate in the Antarctic and the Arctic waters. Ships would be assessed based on projected hazards they might encounter in polar waters. Navigational safety and communications will particularly be emphasized, along with ecological concerns. The requirement of a qualified ice navigator may be included. The relative lack of good navigational charts and the remoteness of the areas requires attention to many operational details not generally found in other shipping lanes around the globe.
MarineLink.com lists some of the special hazards of navigation in polar areas: Poor weather conditions; a lack of accurate charts; rescue and clean up operations are much more difficult in remote areas -- they can be much more costly, too. The extreme cold can affect deck machinery and emergency equipment. Ice pressing against hulls can introduce overloads of pressure; propulsion systems can also be affected by ice.
Ship tracking will be especially important in the polar regions where ice and icebergs complicate any planned route. In June 2013, a mandatory ship reporting system was put into place in the Barents Sea due to these types of conditions. All ships with a gross tonnage of 5,000 plus, all tankers, all towed vessels, and all ships carrying hazardous cargo are required to report to the Vardo VTS or Murmansk VTS centers.
Satellite AIS is another ship tracking technology to support enhancing visibility of arctic vessel traffic. PortVision provides satellite AIS as an option within it's line of AIS-based vessel tracking products. Satellite AIS "fills in" ship positions when vessels are transiting in open water, away from typical terrestrial (land-) based AIS receivers.
There are differences between the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Arctic Ocean is ringed by continents while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by water. There is little permanent ice in Antarctic waters, as the ice retreats appreciably in the summer. Much of the Arctic sea ice remains in place year-round, although recent summer melts have become much more extensive in the last 30 years, as previously mentioned.
A side benefit of the new rules is an expectation that they will bring insurance costs down. At present, any ship heading into the Arctic above 72 degrees north is required to negotiate a separate policy with its insurer for each vessel and each transit. The new Polar Code, due to its requirement for the Polar Ship Certificate which specifies training and safety particular to these waters, should put insurers more at ease and lower those costs.