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An analysis of the Polar Code

June 27, 2019


Reiss Kauffman

The IMO (International Maritime Organization) provides a framework for ships in terms of safety, security, and the environment. It is important to have consistency in ships, as people use boats to transport people and goods all around the world. With the loss of sea ice, water ways are opening and with it more ships can travel the area. To address this issue along with other unique challenges, the IMO made the Polar Code in 2014. The Polar Code is an international code for ships in the polar region. The Arctic Council recognized the IMO an observer on May 5th, 2019. As this event was recent, this paper will present a critical analysis of the Polar Code and whether it accomplishes its goals. In recent years, the IMO has worked hard on the Polar Code in terms of safety, navigation, and “equally important, the protection of the unique environment and eco-systems of the polar regions.” The IMO states that environmental protection is just as important for ships as safety and navigations, and this paper seeks to asses if this contention is true. Can the Polar Code sufficiently protect the environment and its inhabitants? For the ships travelling to the Arctic, they pose a threat to the environment and its peoples with their emissions, trash, and waste. These factors affect walruses, whales, fish and other animal life from boats. Pollution heavily harms people in the Arctic region, especially the Indigenous peoples who depend on these resources for food and culture.

As time goes on, there is more interest to travel in the Arctic for fun as well as for transportation of goods. Along with this increase of popularity, the ice in Arctic has been melting rapidly. This situation creates new passages to travel as well as makes already traveled paths easier to traverse. A study found that the Arctic will be navigable entirely between 2040-2059. The IMO decided that the region needed special regulations.

At the beginning of 2017, the IMO enforced the Polar Code. However, they were making amendments from other polices such as from MARPOL (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships, effective since 1973) back in 2014 and took many years before the IMO started enforcing these policies. There are several parts to the Polar Code. The first part takes up most of the document, roughly thirty of its forty-two-pages. It is mostly about safety, navigation and ship structure. It makes sense that this section is the largest part of the Polar Code, as the Polar Regions are difficult to navigate and having regulations for that purpose is important. The Polar Code goes into detail about ship structure and machinery. Ships have strict equipment, design, construction, materials, operations and manning. There is not much to note in terms of environmental protection, but it is intricate, detailed and specific enough for the safety of the ships, crew and environment.

Part II-A of the Polar code goes into pollution prevention. The MARPOL Annex 1 has 43 regulations for what the boats can carry. For example, it “prohibits the carriage in bulk as cargo, or and use as fuel, of: 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” (MARPOL). Other regulations discourage practices such as the use or transportation of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Noxious liquids in Chapter 2 of Part II-A, Sewage in Chapter 4, and pollution from Garbage in Chapter 5 are all banned and there are operational requirements for disposing of them properly. However, it is important to note no law enforcement enforces these bans, as the Polar Code is voluntary amongst countries. Chapter 3, Prevention of Pollutions by Harmful Substances Carried by Sea in Packaged Form, is unique as it is intentionally blank. This fact acknowledges there is room for improvement. Why would they bring it up at all if there is nothing to say now? This fact shows that improvements are in the works, most likely. The IMO have stated that they are considering revisions that could come as soon as 2022.

PAME (Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment) has archived information dating back to 2005. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report used this data for their report in 2009. This data is the information that the Polar Code uses when making the ASTD (Arctic Ship Traffic Data) system, which “collect(s) and distribute(s) accurate, reliable and up-to-date information on shipping activities in the Arctic” (PAME, Borgir) and launched in February 2019. They do much more than track the ships, too, such as record emission information, history, activity in specific areas and fuel consumption. This information is essential for the Polar Code to monitor the progress in the Arctic and decide if improvements are necessary.

Disputes in the Northern Passage are another challenge in the Arctic. Michael Byers addresses the issues in his book Who Owns the Arctic?: Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North. With more waters come ships that will travel through the area. The Northwest Passage could accommodate super-tankers or other ships too big for the Panama Canal. The United States argues that the Northwest Passage is an international strait, while Canada argues it is internal waters (Byers, pg. 14). The relationship between the US and Canada makes this issue not a big deal due to their history of cooperation, but this tension still matters for ship traffic. If this waterway becomes an international strait, then this area would see an increase in ship traffic. This increase can also cause a problem with security, which the Arctic Council cannot discuss.

At the end of the day, the Arctic is for everyone and the Polar Code treats it as such. However, these disputes have the potential to heavily impact areas of travel in the Arctic and politics do no always consider the environmental impacts these decisions have. The Polar Code is beyond these issues, but the existence of these disputes show the changes in the Arctic go beyond environmental problems.

There have been studies on how the Arctic will change and using satellite data and Morten Winthers et al. predicts emission rates using this technique. With business as usual predictions, black carbon emissions will increase at least 80% by 2050 and sulphur dioxide will increase at least 1000%. Stephen G. Warren from the University of Washington has studied the effects of black carbon in the Arctic, stating that it can lower the albedo, which further accelerates the melting of ice. Although he concludes there has been a mostly stable amount of black carbon in the Arctic, the effects are still evident. Sulfur dioxide also is a well-known air polluter. However, nearly half of this substance came from fishing ships. This problem led to a ban on fishing in the Arctic in most cases. The second biggest emitters are passenger ships. About 20% of black carbon emissions and 25% of sulphur dioxide come from the ships. The subsequent ships are tankers, general cargo, and container ships respectively, but their emissions are similar.

What about passenger ships? Dawson et al. finds a 115% increase in cruise ships in Arctic Canada between 2005 and 2013, which pushes them to say there “is a sense of urgency involved in governing the changing Arctic” (Dawson et al., 96). People want to travel to the Arctic and cruise ships will have to follow the Polar Code. A book by Michael Lück details the issue, noting the rise in the last decade is without precedent. He says, “A cloud of thick black smoke from heavy oil was emitted by Kapitan Dranitsyn all the way through the ice” (Lück, 36). Although said to emit no CO2, this trend is not the only emissions that affect the environment. More of the book details the unsustainable practices and in 2005 the regulations from MARPOL found the cruise ship industry practices to be unacceptable, although some were ethical or somewhat ethical. The discharge of garbage, sewage, food waste, and treated sewage were banned, which left only 10.8% of cruises approved by the Polar Code. Although the Polar Code never explicitly discusses cruise ships, these regulations also apply here. This trend shows a potential change in these practices with the Polar Code. Studies on the subject are not yet out to see if this has been effective on cruise ships, but the Polar Code is addressing the issue of waste dumped from cruise ships.

According to PAME, the number of ships by country is heavily skewed. Out of 1869, 774 are from Russia and 228 are from the USA, while Norway, Canada, and Denmark are 179, 71, and 59 respectively. This fact is an important distinction, since cooperation from these countries will be important for the Polar Code to be successful. In an article by Richard Wanerman, he discusses the importance of enforcing the Polar Code. This article is from 2015, before enforcement happened. He stressed the inclusion of the Arctic Council, stating the combination of the IMO’s expertise in maritime shipping and the Arctic Council’s expertise in Arctic affairs from economics, to law, and to the environment would be essential to advisory and enforcement. With the highest number of ships coming from the Arctic States, all of which present in the Arctic Council, its success is attainable through the Arctic Council’s connections. It is in these states’ best interest to follow the Arctic Council to protect the environment and its peoples while also maintaining good relations. Thus, it is likely the Arctic States will follow the Polar Code. As stated before, the Polar Code is mostly, voluntary which is why it is essential that the Arctic Council supports these policies. This gives the enforcement of the Polar Code the highest chance by the Arctic States.

The Polar Code never mentions emissions, climate change, or carbon. How could it possibly mitigate climate change without this? The Polar Code focuses of pollutants from waste and oils on the environment rather than climate induced environmental impacts. Other regulations such as MARPOL address the issues of emissions to all ships and journals have already criticized their regulations. The Overview of MARPOL ANNEX VI Regulations for Prevention of Air Pollution from Marine Diesel Engines concludes ships are a significant contributor to climate change and atmospheric pollution. But the regulations in Annex VI is still a work in progress and emphasize the importance of change in manufacturers and fuel suppliers to keep up with the strict regulations to protect the environment. The Polar Code could include such regulations but doing so is repetitive.

In conclusion, will the Polar Code be enough for the environment in the future? With a seat on the Arctic Council and access to all this research, the Polar Code has the resources to adapt to future issues on top of already being well balanced and structured. However, improvement in passenger ships may need attention as the industry increases. Information of these kind of changes were absent from IMO or the Polar Code. But intentions for change are in the discussion along with spaces left intentionally blank in the Polar Code. If these intentionally left blank areas are left there for future development, then the Polar Code will have addressed all the issues within its goal, including environmental impacts. The Polar Code is an essential step to mitigating the maritime issues in the Arctic. The future is dependent on the cooperation of the Arctic Council and the IMO with regulations as the Arctic develops and change.



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