There’s been a lot of developments in Arctic shipping lately, particularly in light of the study by members of UCLA’s Geography Department forecasting new trans-Arctic routes to become navigable by mid-century.
With the possibility of more ships transiting the Arctic, it’s imperative that a Polar Code be developed. Shipping in the poles might be increasing quickly, but the slow rate at which pollutants decrease in the cold ecosystems of the polar regions isn’t changing at all. Any oil spill or discharge in the region could be more harmful to the marine environment than a similar one in a warm region such as the Gulf of Mexico, where pollutants break down more quickly in the temperate waters.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been working on the Polar Code for some time, but delays are pushing back implementation until at least 2014. In February 2012, Lars Erik Mangset of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) criticized the slowdown, observing, “These rules could limit emissions and discharges of pollutants to both the air and water, they could also help to limit climate change impacts, and reduce disturbance and strikes of marine mammals. The longer the Polar Regions are deprived of these protections, the greater the risk. It is unacceptable that these globally important areas are deprived of environmental protection and that commercial interests without a stake in the future of Polar Regions should override the development of environmental protection. “
Progress was made couple of weeks ago, however, when the IMO convened in London to discuss the Polar Code. At the meeting, Canada called for a complete ban on the discharging of oil, oily waste, or garbage into Arctic waters. Already, in Antarctica, the Marine Pollution (MARPOL) Convention entirely prohibits such discharge from any ship. Vessels must have compartments onboard in which they can store discharge until leaving the Antarctica area. Environmental groups are praising Canada’s demands for strict pollution controls. CBC News reports that Mangset, of the WWF, remarked, “Canada actually took quite good leadership on this issue.”
The fact that Canada is calling for tough regulations on dumping in the Arctic shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA), passed by Parliament in 1970, placed strict controls on dumping. It permits absolutely zero discharge in Arctic waters. The AWPPA inspired the inclusion of UNCLOS’ Article 234 on ice-covered areas, sometimes called the “Canadian clause.” Furthermore, as Transports Canada’s website proclaims, Canadians have championed the environment at the IMO both by holding high positions in the organization and by leading efforts in areas like pollution liability.
The website also notes that one of Canada’s actions that helped the environment was to expand the area covered by AWPPA from 100 miles to 200 miles. Of course, an element of strategy also undergirds the expansion, which essentially uses environmental means to legitimize Canadian patrolling and control over waters it already views as internal. Thus, if the Polar Code adopts a zero-discharge policy in the Arctic, it would underscore Canada’s ability to enforce regulations it already has in place in its archipelago. Ultimately, Ottawa’s strategy “is to harmonize our domestic regulations with international standards.” It succeeded in doing so with the Law of the Sea, and perhaps it will do so with the Polar Code, too.
The Polar Code would also regulate shipping in Antarctica, where more and more tourists have been traveling in recent years. Cruise ship passengers venturing to the poles should carefully read the waivers they sign before going aboard potentially risking life and limb (although I’d probably recommend a close reading before participating in any cruise, given the recent calamities in Italy and the Gulf of Mexico). In 2007, the ice-class MV Explorer sunk after hitting an iceberg near the South Shetland Islands. All 154 people aboard were rescued by the MS Nordnorge after waiting in lifeboats for five hours, yet they were lucky another ship was in the vicinity. The MS Nordnorge, a cruise ship operated by the Norwegian company Hurtigruten, had a brief stint in the winter of 2007-2008 with a seeming double life as a rescue vessel: just a couple months after the M.S. Explorer sinking, Nordnorge successfully evacuated 294 passengers from the MS Nordkapp, which had run aground in Antarctica.
The worrying thing is that MV Explorer and MS Nordnorge are ships that are designed for operating in polar waters. Although a Polar Code would create guidelines as to ship construction and operation standards, it wouldn’t prevent disasters from happening. That’s why a strong Polar Code needs to be combined with robust search and rescue facilities in the Arctic states and in Antarctica.
The IMO’s website states that the update to the Polar Code, once it sees the light of day, “should also consider the particularities of the Southern hemisphere with regard to environmental and port State control issues and should take account of the IACS Unified Requirements for polar ships and the Finnish ice navigation rules.” Even though Finland isn’t considered an Arctic littoral state, as Norway’s long coastline prevents it from having an outlet to the Arctic Ocean, there’s a lot that the Arctic Five could learn from their somewhat more southern neighbor. At the Scott Polar Research Institute, I attended a talk recently by Dr. Eero Rinne of the Finnish Meteorological Office. He stated that essentially, Finland is an island (and also implied that neither Russia nor northern Sweden is in Europe): “Wherever we want to go in Europe, we have to sail. It’s the only country in the world where all the harbors are blocked with ice in the winter, even mild ones.” The Gulf of Bothnia has ice up to half a meter thick, which requires icebreaker escorts. At any given time, there are more than 2,000 large vessels sailing in the Baltic, a number comparable to traffic in the English Channel. Of course, not all of these ships are sailing up the Gulf of Bothnia, but Finland still has a wealth of experience in ice navigation that it could share with other Arctic states as shipping along the Northern Sea Route — and possibly, eventually, the Northwest Passage and over the North Pole — grows.