Through the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group, the Arctic Council and IMO work together to encourage implementation of the Polar Code. Now in its fourth iteration, the Council’s Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum brings private and public sector together to shape the future of Arctic shipping.

Set sail in Northern waters and starting around 60° N, you will notice that the sea you face is much different than that of southern waters. As you navigate further North, satellite communications become limited, navigating icebergs becomes a new priority task and the risk of an accident occurring in the extreme, temperamental waters increases significantly. Not to mention, if anything goes wrong, the vast remoteness and lack of infrastructure in small coastal Arctic towns is another concern.

These risks are why not just anyone can set sail in Arctic waters. Enter the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group of the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Through PAME, the Arctic Council and IMO cooperate to help ensure the safety, security and environmental performance of Arctic shipping.

A need for Arctic shipping regulations

The Arctic is undergoing extraordinary environmental and developmental changes. A home to Indigenous peoples for many generations, the Arctic is environmentally and ecologically sensitive, experiences extreme weather and climatic events and is rich in both flora and fauna and natural resources. Marine access in the Arctic Ocean is changing quickly as sea ice extent reduces and thins – bringing significant implications for longer seasons of ship navigation and new access to previously difficult to reach coastal regions. That – combined with the Arctic’s storehouse of untapped natural resources, high commodity process and growing worldwide demand – has brought a complex set of users to Arctic waters.

In recognition of these critical changes, PAME released its Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment in 2009. Back then, there were no uniform, international standards for ice navigators or for the safety and survival of seafarers in Arctic conditions. PAME’s assessment recommended that Arctic States cooperatively support efforts at the IMO to augment global ship safety and pollution prevention conventions with specific Arctic requirements. This was further reiterated by Arctic Council Ministers in the Iqaluit Declaration (2015) and the Fairbanks Declaration (2017).

A new chapter began when the IMO adopted the Polar Code and related amendments to make it mandatory under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). When Polar Code entered into force on 1 January 2017, it marked a historical milestone in IMO’s work to protect ships, seafarers and passengers in the harsh environment and ecosystems of the Arctic.

What is Polar Code?

The Polar Code imposes additional requirements on ships and their operations beyond existing international Conventions, frameworks and other relevant IMO instruments.

Polar Code covers 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 the protection of the unique environment and ecosystems of the polar regions. A full overview of Polar Code can be found here.

A Forum for partnership to promote Arctic shipping safety and sustainability

The effectiveness of Polar Code is only as good as its implementation. To raise awareness of its provisions amongst all those involved in or potentially affected by Arctic marine operations, the Arctic Council established the Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum, led by PAME, in 2017. The Forum facilitates the exchange of information and best practices between Forum participants on specific shipping topics, including hydrography, search and rescue logistics, industry guidelines and ship equipment, systems and structure.

The Forum meets on a yearly basis, and is open to Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participants, Arctic Council Observers and any widely recognized professional organizations dedicated to improving safe and environmentally sound marine operations in the Arctic. The Forum is a demonstration of what can be achieved when public-private partnerships are encouraged, with industry, governments, international regulators, the research community, the Indigenous community and international organizations working together to shape the future of Arctic shipping.

The fourth Forum meeting concluded in November 2020 under the theme "The Polar Code: Trending Towards Success” in recognition of the enormous progress made in the Polar Code’s successful implementation. Presentations from a diverse group of experts addressed efforts to advance harmonized interpretations of the Polar Code and highlighted initiatives to enhance meteorological, oceanographic, and hydrographic products and services that support safe and environmentally sound Arctic shipping. Several presentations described training initiatives to strengthen the critical human element in polar navigation – such as survival in polar waters and search and rescue. A presentation was also given on a voyage planning tool based on Indigenous knowledge and community recommendations.

“This Forum is forward thinking, and a leading example of inclusivity in the implementation of important regulation for the protection of seafarers, the environment, and the Arctic’s inhabitants, as well as important significance for the Antarctic. It is a lesson for others in how to approach the implementation of regulation. It would be great to see support for its replication for other IMO Regulations and Conventions,” said Dr. Heike Deggim, Director of Maritime Safety at IMO.

The Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum is not just a yearly meeting. In 2018, it launched a public web portal to assist in the effective implementation of Polar Code. The Web Portal provides links to authoritative information essential to implementation of and compliance with the Polar Code. Information for the Web Portal was contributed by many stakeholders, including Arctic States, intergovernmental organizations, classification societies, the shipping industry, marine insurers, and non-governmental organizations. The Web Portal is regularly updated and expanded as new information becomes available.

“The importance of the Forum as a venue for the compilation and exchange of information critical to the implementation of IMO’s Polar Code continues to increase as evidenced by the growing number of annual meeting Participants. The Forum’s Web Portal has quickly become an indispensable source of carefully curated and ever-increasing number of hyperlinks to authoritative information essential to safe and environmentally sound navigation in the Arctic,” concluded Sverrir Konráðsson, Chair of the Forum.

For further information about the Forum, its fourth meeting, participants involved and presentations given, visit the meeting site. A full overview of Polar Code can be found here.