The Polar Code and the Future of the Arctic

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The International Maritime Organization has just released the “Polar Code,” a document designed to govern all aspects of shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

According to its mission statement, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is

“a specialized agency of the United Nations and the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping. Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry that is fair and effective, universally adopted and universally implemented.

Shipping is a truly international industry, and it can only operate effectively if the regulations and standards are themselves agreed, adopted and implemented on an international basis. And IMO is the forum at which this process takes place.

IMO measures cover all aspects of international shipping — including ship design, construction, equipment, manning, operation and disposal — to ensure that this vital sector for remains safe, environmentally sound, energy efficient and secure.”

The IMO has recently released a text for a new Polar Code to govern all aspects of shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, a situation rapidly changing as a result of melting sea-ice and the potential opening for polar waters to increasing maritime exploitation and endeavor. The purpose of the Code is “to 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.”

It is an astonishing document. The contents include Polar Water Operational Manual, Ship Structure, Subdivision and Stability, Watertight and Weather tight Integrity, Machinery Installations, Fire Safety and Protection, Life-Saving Appliances and Arrangement, Safety of Navigation, Communication, Voyage Planning, Manning and Training, Prevention of Pollution by Oil, Control of Pollution by Noxious Liquids in Bulk, Prevention of Pollution by Harmful Substances Carried by Sea in Packaged Form, Prevention of Pollution by Sewage from Ships, Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships, and various sections and appendices providing additional guidance for the implementation of these various standards and requirements. Each of these chapters is further detailed down to minute specifications, planning documents, inspections, and licensing enforcement.

In a Preamble, the Code acknowledges various limitations: for example, “that the polar water impose additional navigational demands beyond those normally encountered…in many areas chart coverage may not currently be adequate for coastal navigation” or “that coastal communities in the Arctic could be…vulnerable to human activities, such as ship operation.” In effect, the document addresses the most basic technical engineering standards to diminish risk of accident for ship operation in an uncharted navigational area and a highly vulnerable human and natural ecosystem but requires no capacity for rescue or environmental response to error, accident, or disaster. I cannot argue with the purpose of the Code, its thoroughness, or specific recommendations (down to pocket knives and extra batteries in the survival kits); it is all good, prescient, and actuarially responsible albeit theoretically in advance of what may be increased ship operations in polar waters to come.

But it seems to me fundamentally lacking by not also requiring the operational preparedness demanded by the possible failure of the Code to anticipate all risk taken by ships in these waters at all. Should we really allow vessels passage into water that has no comprehensive navigational aid based on fully surveyed channels? Should we allow such passages with no equally detailed system for emergency response? Should we allow for any risk of pollution by oil, sewage, or other noxious substances with no established capacity or plan in place for immediate reaction, access to an accident site, systematic cleanup material pre-placed, mitigation technology available and appropriate to severe polar conditions, assignment and acceptance of responsibility clearly stated, adequate and comprehensive insurance, environmental protection bond or other financial guarantees secured, defined legal obligations of ship operators, and judicial procedures and jurisdictions established to adjudicate the inevitable liability disputes?

Should not these questions be asked and answered before a single ship, meeting the Polar Code or otherwise, operates in polar waters? Is the IMO the agency for such deliberation? If not, who is?

“The Polar Code” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio feature on World Ocean Radio that can be heard here. Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org. Peter Neill is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available now.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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