UK: An Update On The IMO’s Proposed Polar Code

Last Updated: 13 February 2015
Article by Rory Macfarlane, Reema Shour and Florian Schacker

Global warming in recent years has resulted in increased maritime traffic in the Northern Sea Route ("NSR"). Whilst the NSR offers both time savings in terms of voyage duration and also bunker cost savings, navigating the Arctic presents a number of challenges for the shipping industry and raises a number of safety and environmental concerns.

As a result, the International Maritime Organisation ("IMO") has produced a draft Polar Code to cover all aspects of shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic areas. The Polar Code comprises a set of mandatory safety and environmental protection regulations, together with non-mandatory provisions relating to both. In May 2014, the IMO's Marine Safety Committee ("MSC") agreed and approved in principle the mandatory safety provisions and then formally adopted them in November 2014. Furthermore, in October 2014, the IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee ("MEPC") agreed many of the environmental protection regulations, which will become mandatory under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships ("MARPOL").

The MEPC is expected to adopt the Polar Code and associated MARPOL amendments in May 2015. The IMO Council should then formally approve the final Code, which is expected to come into force in January 2017.

This article considers why a Polar Code was deemed necessary and highlights its principal provisions.

The background

The NSR (also known as the North East Passage) runs along the Russian coast from the Atlantic to the Pacific and has historically been used for domestic Russian shipping. Climate change that has reduced the levels of ice in the Arctic Sea in recent times, however, has resulted in the NSR increasingly attracting international commercial shipping. While the NSR is only available for part of the year, namely the period covering late summer and autumn, nonetheless the number of international commercial transits has been steadily increasing annually since 2009 and this general rising trend is expected to continue in the long term, despite a reported fall in transit permit approvals by the Northern Sea Route Administration ("NSRA") in 2014.

In addition to the bunker cost and time savings that the NSR brings, the risk of piracy for ships travelling via the Gulf of Aden has proved an additional attraction of the NSR. Nonetheless, the shipping industry faces a number of concerns arising out of transits through the NSR. These include the challenges of harsh and extreme weather conditions, restricted visibility, poor communications, unreliable navigational aids, risk of contact with icebergs, under-developed casualty response infrastructure, potential remoteness for salvage and clean-up facilities in the event of an incident, lack of bunkering facilities, and so on. Furthermore, due to the weather conditions, any wreck removal in case of a casualty is likely to prove both expensive and dangerous. If there is a collision or grounding in the NSR, there may also be a serious risk of oil pollution, which is especially problematic in the Arctic region because cold temperatures and ice may make the detection of oil in icy waters particularly difficult and the spilt oil less easy to contain and control. This in turn leads to a number of environmental, as well as safety, concerns. Marine underwriters will also have to decide how to price and reserve Arctic risks.

While Russia has federal laws regulating vessels transiting the NSR, the IMO has deemed it necessary to develop a mandatory international Code. Hence the draft International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the "Polar Code"), which the IMO has been working on since 2009.

The Polar Code

The Polar Code is not a self-standing convention, which would require a potentially lengthy ratification process before it came into force. Rather, the mandatory safety regulations of the Code will be implemented through the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 ("SOLAS") and the mandatory environmental protection regulations will supplement and be adopted via amendments to MARPOL. The Antarctic area is already established as a Special Area under MARPOL Annexes I and V and the Code aims to replicate many of those provisions for the Arctic area. The Code also comprises non-mandatory but recommended safety and environmental measures.

A key provision is that all vessels will be required to carry a Polar Ship Certificate as well as a Polar Water Operational Manual at all times whilst operating in the polar regions. The Polar Ship Certificate will classify vessels according to the suitability of their design for operating in polar waters. Issuing the Certificate would require an assessment that takes into account the range of operating conditions and hazards the vessels may encounter in polar waters. The assessment would include information on identified operational limitations and plans or procedures or additional safety equipment necessary to mitigate incidents with potential safety or environmental concerns.

The Polar Water Operational Manual is designed to provide the owner, operator and crew of vessels operating in the polar region with sufficient information about the vessel's operational capabilities and limitations to support their decision-making process.

The combination of these two documents is intended to provide key information about the vessel's operational capabilities and limitations – such as Polar Ship Class and Ice Class, temperature capabilities, safe ice-going capability and ice transit capability – as well as the procedures that have to be followed routinely and in worst case scenarios.

Other noteworthy safety provisions include rules dealing with stability, ship structure, watertightness, machinery and operational safety, fire safety, life-saving appliances, navigation, communications, manning and training, and voyage planning.

As regards the mandatory environmental protection regulations, these include measures designed to prevent oil pollution, pollution by noxious liquid substances from ships, pollution by sewage from ships and pollution by discharge of garbage from ships. MARPOL Annexes I to V will be amended accordingly to introduce these regulations.

Some of the non-mandatory recommendations of the Code include a recommendation to refrain from carrying heavy fuel oil as cargo or fuel in the Arctic and a recommendation to apply the standards contained in the Ballast Water Management Convention, which has not yet entered into force.


Concerns have been expressed that the Polar Code does not take account of the fact that conditions in the Arctic are never uniform and that the Code does not link the ice-classes of vessels with the actual ice conditions prevailing in the polar regions. However, it is anticipated that industry standards will be developed to deal with such concerns. By way of example, POLARIS (Polar Operational Limit Assessment Risk Indexing System) has already been developed by the International Association of Classification Societies ("IACS") with the help of Arctic counties, such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Canada. POLARIS reportedly provides a chart listing the level of risk against each type of ice condition and how these apply to the different ice classes of vessel. Other industry standards are likely to follow.

There have also been criticisms from environmental organisations that the Code does not go far enough and that it fails to address certain marine safety and environmental protection issues. Notwithstanding these criticisms, the Polar Code is arguably a significant step in ensuring that any safety and environmental risks presented by increasing Arctic maritime traffic are both contained and controlled.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.