The Implementation and application of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code): Evaluations and considerations addressing this functionbased regulation’s effect on safety and emergency preparedness concerning Arctic shipping

Keywords: polar waters, International Code, SOLAS, SOLAS Convention, Polar Code


People have sailed in polar waters for decades; more than one hundred years ago, Nansen and Amundsen explored the oceans of the Arctic and Antarctic with their expedition teams, with Amundsen leading the expedition that first reached the South Pole in 1911. A remarkable technological evolution has taken place since those days, bringing along even more astonishing innovations. Wooden ships with sail are replaced by standardized steel-constructed vessels, powered by diesel-electric engines or nuclear reactors, and highly technological satellite navigation and communication systems have replaced the sextant, chronometer, compass and surveyor’s wheel guiding the way at that time. The knowledge and experience concerning risks and hazards associated with shipping in polar waters is outstanding. However, the increase in the shipping activity of various vessels in the Arctic region during recent years has resulted in new risks; consequently, the knowledge, experience and the capacity to handle these are limited. Seen historically, major accidents and events have raised the focus on safety and forced the way for the development, innovation and design of new technology and systems. As a response to the Titanic disaster in 1912, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was agreed in 1914 and suggested the minimum number of lifeboats and other emergency equipment required to be maintained by merchant ships. Today, the SOLAS Convention is considered the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships and specifies the minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships. During the last century, several revisions and amendments to this Convention, adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1960, have strengthened the regulations for ship design and operations. Consequently, the maritime industry is forced to innovate, (re)-design and construct vessels, emergency equipment and systems, to become compliant with the SOLAS Convention.

In 2017, the IMO amended the SOLAS Convention, by implementing the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), providing mandatory rules and requirements applicable to ship operations in defined geographical areas in the waters around the Arctic and Antarctica. The Polar Code supplemented existing IMO conventions and regulations, with the goal of increasing the safety of ship operations and mitigating the impact on the people and environment in the remote, vulnerable, and potentially harsh polar waters. Ship systems and equipment addressed in the Polar Code are required to maintain at least the same performance standards referred to in the SOLAS Convention. The key principle of the regulation is founded on a risk-based approach in determining scope and a holistic approach in reducing identified risks. The Polar Code consists of function-based requirements, i.e., the regulation specifies what is to be achieved without specifying how to be in compliance with its requirements. The requirement to first carry out an operational (risk) assessment of the ship and its equipment, considering the anticipated range of operating and environmental conditions, is essential in the application of the Polar Code. This operational assessment shall guide the way in the establishment of shipspecific procedures and operational limitations, based on related risk factors in operating areas and taking into consideration the anticipated range of operating and environmental conditions: amongst others, operation in low air temperature, as this affects the working environment and human performance, maintenance and emergency preparedness tasks, material properties and equipment efficiency, survival time and performance of safety equipment and systems. The Polar Code requires that a Polar Service Temperature (PST) shall be specified for a ship intended to operate in low air temperature and that the performance standard shall be at least 10°C below the lowest Mean Daily Low Temperature (MDLT) for the intended area and season of operation in polar waters. The MDLT is the mean value of the daily low temperature for each day of the year over a minimum 10-year period. Survival systems and equipment are required by the Polar Code to be fully functional and operational at the PST during the maximum expected rescue time – i.e., the time adopted for the design of equipment and systems that shall provide survival support – which is defined in the Polar Code as never being less than five days.

The overall objective of this research is to contribute to the development of new knowledge concerning the implementation and application of the Polar Code and how this function-based regulation, so far, has succeeded in achieving its goal. Two research questions were developed to support the overarching objective, concerning the Polar Code’s applicability as a regulatory instrument in Arctic shipping. The research questions were associated with: (1) the Polar Code’s contribution to enhancing safety for shipping in the Arctic Ocean, considering the risks and hazards associated with activities in these waters, and (2) the identification of key mechanisms to ensure that compliance with the stated goal of the regulation occurs in a satisfactory manner. Individual interviews are conducted with experts in the field, concerning the implementation and application of the Polar Code. Moreover, two controlled experiments are performed, to assess the risk to humans and equipment of low temperature and exposure.

The implementation of new regulations can trigger the development of new products, systems and processes, even though, in the early stages, it can be unclear how the development will manifest itself. At the time of the implementation of the Polar Code in 2017 (1st January), there was a lack of guidelines or informative standards providing support to the Polar Code, and a variety of solutions on emergency equipment and systems could comply with the regulation’s function-based requirements. Although the regulation provides additional guidance (in Part II-B) to the mandatory provisions (in Part II-A), this is in many cases general and generic. The operational assessment is required to address both individual (personal survival equipment) and shared (group survival equipment) needs, which shall be provided in the event of an abandonment of ship situation. The Polar Code states that this equipment shall provide effective protection against direct wind chill, sufficient thermal insulation to maintain the core temperature of persons, and sufficient protection to prevent frostbite of all extremities. In the guidance (Part II-B) of the regulation, samples of suggested equipment for personal survival equipment and group survival kits are provided. However, many products will comply with the suggested equipment, regardless of their suitability under real conditions. The protection against wind chill to humans, to prevent frostbite (and to increases the survival time) depends on factors such as time and type of exposure, individual physiological conditions and activity level, rather than just the types of gloves or shoes chosen and their protective status.

The sinking of a cruise liner is considered the ultimate challenge for the rescue capability in the Arctic region, and the passengers on cruise ships represent a vulnerable group for several reasons. The average passenger is typically older and less fit and would suffer from discomfort and hypothermia faster than younger persons, in a situation requiring evacuation to lifeboats, life rafts or directly onto ice. For shipowners and operators operating in polar waters and required to comply with the Polar Code, there can be economic incentives for neglecting or not actively taking part in the innovating process of improving and developing new systems and equipment sufficient to withstand low temperatures and the harsh polar conditions. High costs are expected in the work of developing and improving emergency equipment and systems, especially if technical and operational winterization upgrades of older vessels are necessary. Search and Rescue (SAR) exercises conducted in the waters surrounding Svalbard have revealed that the marine industry in general is reactive in the work of implementing the Polar Code’s requirements. Consequently, many vessels are equipped with insufficient survival equipment, including insufficient food and water rations. Great variations are observed in Life-Saving Appliances (LSA) and arrangements, concerning both quality and functionality, approved by flag states and classification societies. There are, unfortunately, examples of tailored operational assessments which support marginal emergency equipment and systems, as the associated cost, weight, volume and capacity puts additional strain and restrictions on shipowners and operators. With limited communication between the suppliers of the development of survival equipment, there are large variations among the functionality of such equipment in polar waters. There is lack of harmonization and standardization amongst the subject groups supposed to comply with the Polar Code, and a common understanding of the most suitable and “stateof- the-art” LSA and arrangements required for an emergency response situation in polar waters seems not to be in reach yet.

Author Biography

Espen Engtrø

PhD fellow
University of Stavanger
Faculty of Science and Technology
Department of Safety, Economics and Planning

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January 26, 2022