Ocean Currents

Regulation of Shipping in the Warming Arctic is a Hot Topic


With 90 percent of the world’s trade being transported across our ocean, it was only a matter of time before the receding sea ice in the Arctic Ocean captured the interest of the shipping industry. Shipping goods through the Northern Sea Route across the Russian Arctic coast, along the fabled Northwest Passage of the Canadian and U.S. Arctic coasts, or straight across the North Pole could save time and money. But at what cost? The Arctic Ocean is far from a safe place for vessels, and the inevitable accidents in this remote and rapidly changing region could devastate the fragile ecosystem. Fortunately, the International Maritime Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations that regulates global shipping, is developing a mandatory ‘Polar Code’ designed to minimize impacts of the anticipated Arctic shipping boom.

Shipping disrupts fish and wildlife, and some of the impacts are magnified by the unique conditions of the Arctic. For example, greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate disruption, which is disproportionately affecting the Arctic region. Noise pollution disrupts whale migrations around the world, but it is particularly problematic in the Arctic, where bowhead whales migrate through lanes of open water surrounded by ice or ice and land.  These are the exact same lanes that ships will be using, so the noise will be concentrated there. The same logic applies to oil spills, which would be concentrated in important migratory corridors or in nearshore environments, where there are higher concentrations of wildlife. Also, as we’ve discussed here in the past, the Arctic is a remote region with little infrastructure or emergency response equipment.

The new mandatory Polar Code, which will be enforced through amendments to the existing International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), builds on the existing voluntary Guidelines for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, and is scheduled to be finalized and adopted in 2015. The Polar Code will address a wide range of issues, including ship design, construction, equipment, operation, training, search and rescue and environmental protection. The scope of the new regulations is impressive, especially considering that when Ocean Conservancy staff and our partners began working on the Polar Code in 2010, there were no plans to have a chapter dedicated to the protection of the fragile marine environment.

While we are certainly excited that the 170 member states that make up the International Maritime Organization are committed to addressing the consequences of shipping through Arctic waters, much work remains to be done. Ocean Conservancy and our partners feel strongly that the Polar Code should contain additional provisions, including:

  • A ban on the use of heavy fuel oil, which is more toxic than crude oil and is already banned in Antarctica
  • Measures that reduce black carbon emissions, which may cause up to 25 percent of observed global warming by covering Arctic snow and ice with soot and reducing its ability to reflect heat
  • Expanded applications of the Polar Code to sub-Arctic waters with similarly dangerous ice conditions, lack of response infrastructures and fragile ecologies.

The good news is that the International Maritime Organization is taking the environmental impacts of Arctic shipping very seriously. The October 2014 meetings of the Marine Environment Protection Committee, which is tasked with regulating a variety of environmental issues across the globe, will be preceded by a weeklong session to grapple with these issues and ultimately take us one step closer to a robust Polar Code and a better protected healthy Arctic Ocean. Ocean Conservancy will continue to work to ensure that the final Polar Code protects the ecological heritage of this unique and fragile region at the top of the planet.

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