The Polar Code


Published: 10 February 2015

Development of an international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (The Polar Code)

The two poles have always been a matter of concern to IMO and many relevant requirements, provisions and recommendations have been developed over the years for the safety of the ships operating in harsh, remote and vulnerable polar areas. Ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic environments are exposed to a number of unique risks and, over the coming years, polar shipping will grow in volume and diversify in nature.

Because of the current guidelines, Guidelines for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Resolution A. 1024(26)), are recommendatory and the polar shipping is growing, a move towards a mandatory code seemed to be necessary. In November 2014, IMO adopted the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), and related amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to make it mandatory.

The Polar Code is expected to be entered into force of the SOLAS amendments on 1 January 2017. It will apply to new ships constructed after that date. Ships constructed before 1 January 2017 will be required to meet the relevant requirements of the Polar Code.


The Polar Code will contain both safety and environmental related provisions and will be mandatory under both SOLAS and the International Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). IMO's Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) is expected to adopt the Code and associated MARPOL amendments at its next session in May 2015. The entry-into-force date will be aligned with the SOLAS amendments.


The draft Polar Code covers the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue as well as environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles. It also includes mandatory measures covering safety part (Part I-A) and pollution prevention (Part II-A) and recommendatory provisions for both parts (Part I-B and II-B).

The Polar Code is intended to cover 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, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and eco-systems of the polar regions.

Certificate and classification

For ships intending to operate in the defined waters of the Antarctic and Arctic, it is required by The Code to apply for a Polar Ship Certificate, which would classify the vessel into specific categories. Category A ship a ship designed for operation in polar waters at least in medium first-year ice; Category B ship a ship not included in category A, designed for operation in polar waters in at least thin first-year ice; or Category C ship a ship designed for operation in open waters or in ice conditions less severe than those included in Categories A and B.

The issuance of a certificate would require an assessment which would include information on identified operational limitations and plans or procedures or additional safety equipment necessary to mitigate incidents with potential safety or environmental consequences. A Polar Water Operational Manual is also needed on board the ship to provide the owner, operator, master and crew with sufficient information regarding the ship's operational capabilities and limitations in order to support their decision-making process.


The Polar Code is a positive step forward towards mandatory rules for management of shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic polar waters. In the Arctic waters, some have criticized the Polar Code in failing to address the need to phase out the use of heavy fuel oil, which has been identified as the highest risk posed by shipping. The heavy fuel oil has already been banned in Antarctica for this reason.

Moreover, a major concern remains due to the fact that non-ice strengthened ships will still be allowed to operate in ice-covered waters, even though the Polar Code will contain regulations requiring that ship operators limit the entry into ice according to the ability of their ship to resist ice pressure.

Finally, there is a concern regarding the wildlife. The Polar Code includes requirements for ships to avoid marine mammals (e.g. whales and walruses), but it seems that not all wildlife is to be included as it fails to consider seabird colonies.

Ship noise, which disturbs wildlife, has not yet been addressed either by the draft regulations, although starting in 2017, ships will be required to plan their routes accounting for marine mammal habitat.

Russia has protested against the environmental measures that bans both garbage dumping and oily discharges from ships in polar waters. Russia had sought an exemption for oily discharges for some of its ships on domestic routes in the Arctic, specifically, ships operating in ice that would remain at sea for extended periods.

We will keep monitoring the developments regarding arctic shipping, but if any of our members have any special queries in this regard, we will gladly assist.

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Source: IMO