International code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (Polar Code)

A ship in polar area

The International code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (Polar Code) will enter into force on 1 January 2017 according to the latest information. It will be mandatory under both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The Polar Code and SOLAS amendments were adopted during the 94th session of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), in November 2014. The environmental provisions and MARPOL amendments were adopted during the 68th session of the MarineEnvironment Protection Committee (MEPC) in May 2015.

Background of the International code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (Polar Code)

The two polar areas Arctic (North Pole region) and Antarctic (South Pole region) are not so affected by the human activities as the rest of the world. Their relative isolation and harsh climate preserved them virgin. As the local ecosystems were isolated they are more fragile to external influence particularly human activity. In the recent years merchant, cruise and offshore vessels are operating in the Polar areas more and more.

In 2009 Guidelines for ships operating in polar waters (Resolution A.1024(26)) was adopted to enhance the provisions of MARPOL and SOLAS. The purpose of the Guidelines is to recommend additional measures to address the severe weather conditions of the Polar areas in order to increase the safety of the vessels and to protect the marine environment. It is recommended only.

On 1 August 2011 a new chapter 9 was added to MARPOL Annex I with a new regulation 43 which prohibits the carriage in bulk as cargo, or carriage and use as fuel, of: crude oils having a density at 15°C higher than 900 kg/m3; oils, other than crude oils, having a density at 15°C higher than 900 kg/m3 or a kinematic viscosity at 50°C higher than 180 mm2/s; or bitumen, tar and their emulsions. An exception is envisaged for vessels engaged in securing the safety of ships or in a search and rescue operation. Under the Polar Code ships are encouraged not to use or carry heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.

As the Polar areas are getting popular cruise ships destination Guidelines on voyage planning for passenger ships operating in remote areas – resolution A.999(25) was issued in November 2007. When creating a passage plan the extreme weather conditions and limited resources must be considered. A proper passage plan must take into account factors as thick ice, icebergs, fog, safe speed, reliability of surveys, established corridors, contingency plans, etc. The Polar regions are quite far from the SAR facilities therefore the vessels cannot rely on prompt support in case of emergency or it could be quite limited and insufficient.

The above-mentioned documents created the foundation of the Polar Code. It will bring the existing rules and recommendations to a higher level. The Polar code will be amended and improved in the future to ensure the safety of navigation and protection of the environment.

Which vessels will be affected by Polar Code

All vessels more than 500 GT except fishing vessels must comply with the code when operating in the Polar waters.

For vessels build on or after 1 January 2017 it will come into force completely. The rest will have time to comply with the constructional provisions for “zero discharge” no later than the first intermediate or renewal survey one year after 1 January 2017.

The Code is not compulsory for ships entitled to sovereign immunity. Nevertheless they are strongly encouraged to comply with it.

Certificate and classification

For ships intending to operate in the defined waters of the Polar Code, it is required to obtain a Polar Ship Certificate, which would classify the vessel into specific categories. Category A ship is designed for operation in polar waters at least in medium first-year ice; Category B ship is 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.

To get a certificate the vessel must pass an assessment for the readiness of the vessel to operate in the specific conditions. It must address the limitations of the vessel, plans for the operation of additional safety and environmental equipment. In addition to that the vessel must be supplied with a Polar Water Operational Manual to support the owner, operator, master and crew with sufficient information regarding the ship’s operational capabilities and limitations.

Polar code summary

The Polar Code is created to cover the vessel ability to navigate in ice water fully – ship design, navigation (both equipment and training), safety equipment and preparedness as well as environmental protection.

It is divided into two parts similar to the ISPS code. Part I is safety provisions also divided into two parts A – compulsory and B recommended.
Polar Code Ship Safety - Infographic_smaller_-page-001
Part II is covering environmental protection provisions also separated on A and B part similar to Part I. The chapters in the Code each set goals and functional requirements.

How the Polar Code protects the environment (English infographic)-page-001


The preparation of the vessel for the Polar Code will require the joint efforts of owner and ship’s crew. The constructional and machinery requirements may require significant efforts on older vessels. Other parts like voyage planning will require additional training of the crew. The full preparation of the vessel for operation in Polar waters may need a significant investment in re-construction, equipment and training as well as development of new Company procedures and guidelines.


The adoption of the Polar Code is definitely a necessary step for the shipping industry. The first part will ensure the safety of the navigation in such isolated areas of the Ocean. The purpose of the second part is to protect the environment and wildfire in these areas. The two parts are tightly bound in many aspects. The proper voyage planning will ensure not only the safety of the vessel but could also reduce the risk for the marine mammals. The safety measures reducing the risk of an accident will benefit the environmental protection too.

Yet the Polar Code has a vast room to improve. The fishing vessels and those less than 500GT could be included later. So far the Code is not addressing air pollution and green house gas emissions at all. Ballast water management and anti-fouling are mentioned in part II-B just like recommendations. Isolated marine ecosystems are more vulnerable to invasive species carried with the ballast water. The heavy fuel is considered more dangerous than the other marine fuels as it is slow to break down especially in cold waters. So far the vessels are only encouraged not to use it.

The Polar Code provides standards for the shipping industry to follow during their expansion in the Polar areas. We believe that is only the foundation of safety and environmental protection rules which will be improved in the future.

Source: IMO

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