Maritime Rules, Regulations and Codes

Ice Navigation & The Polar Code

Maritime Rules, Regulations and Codes

Ice Navigation & The Polar Code

The regions of the planet surrounding the North and South Poles are called the Polar regions. Dominated by floating ice across much of the Arctic Ocean in the north, and by the Antarctic Ice Sheet in the south, they are perhaps the most majestic yet hostile places on earth.

Exploration and navigation of these areas of wilderness has always been a challenge for the shipping industry. It was said that “they who run the poles, run the world” fuelling exploration, particularly by the great powers of the 19th century.

For many centuries, the hunt was on for a safe northwest passage between Europe and North America, via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The treacherous ice floes of the North Atlantic lead to a significant loss of life and ships and made the route  non-commercial.

The alternative northeast passage running along the Arctic coastline of Norway and Russia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, could save up to 13 days on the traditional route through the Suez Canal. However, this route was ice free and navigable for ships for only 2 months a year, meaning it wasn’t a reliable route either.

The 19th century saw a variety of innovations in the design of ships to create a safe route through these treacherous, ice choked seas. 

  • The first ship to successfully navigate the northeast passage was a converted whaler called the Vega in 1878, despite having only 60 horsepower, equivalent to half the engine of a small modern family car. This feat would not be repeated for 35 years. 
  • The innovative ice breaker Murtaja designed by the Finn, Robert Runeberg in 1890, laid out basic design principles of engineering ships for strength and ability to withstand and break ice. She was so successful that she wasn’t decommissioned until 1958.
  • Designs for ice breaking ships progressed throughout the late 19th and early 20th century with stronger ships and much more powerful engines, as seen with Yermak in 1898.
  • As ever technology was accelerated by war. The First World War saw the development of the 10,000 horsepower Svyatogor ice breaker. Built for the Imperial Russian navy to keep open the military and merchant supply routes to northern Russia and the Baltic, she also saw action in World War II.
  • In the latter part of the 20th century the designs for ships exponentially improved. The Soviet Union completed the first nuclear powered icebreaker, Lenin in 1957 and developed the Arktika-class (1975) of nuclear-powered icebreakers - two remain in service today.

More recent years have seen further advancement in icebreaker designs, while climate change has had an enormous impact on the polar regions, meaning there is often far less ice for ships to contend with. In fact, it is estimated that by 2035 there may be ice free routes on the northeast passage all year round. These two factors have led to more interest in using these northern routes for commercial shipping. However, this poses a real problem, as more shipping in these delicate environments could lead to further climate change and pollution.

The challenge is to find a balance when designing ships and setting standards for these regions, where both safe passage of shipping and the crew are considered alongside the safety of the polar environment.

The International Maritime Organization code for shipping in Polar waters, the Polar Code, was introduced in 2017. It is mandatory under SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) and MARPOL (International Convention of Marine Pollution) covering a full range of design, construction, equipment, training, operational, search, rescue and environmental protection standards that protect both the environment and the safety of shipping. 

Today’s advancement in design, materials, satellite navigation systems and radar make crossing these treacherous regions much safer.

Recently the research ship Agulhas II discovered Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 vessel, the Endurance, 2 miles under the Antarctic Sea, which still reminds us of the danger that ice poses to ships.

The standards classification societies and the IMO set are ever evolving to ensure safer and cleaner shipping in our polar regions. The National Geographic Endurance polar passenger cruise expedition vessel, was the first ship to be granted IMO’s ice-class Polar Code (PC5) Category A in 2022.