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Antarctic ships stuck in ice signals the urgency of a new Polar Code


It was with a sense of irony and nostalgia that I read of the news over the holiday period that the Russian flagged ship Akademik Shokalskiy was beset in the pack ice in Antarctica. I was onboard the Shokalskiy some years ago when she visited one of the British bases on the Antarctic peninsula.

This year, she was carrying an expedition which was attempting to re-trace the footsteps of Australian Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson 100 years ago into ‘the home of the blizzard’.   But the besetment in ice since Christmas Eve of this ship, an ice-strengthened vessel designed to cope with the rigours of polar operation, has also occurred just as the final details are due to be negotiated at the International Maritime Organization in London on a new “Polar Code” for ships operating in polar waters – the first mandatory instrument of its kind.

Akademik Shokalskiy at anchor in the Penola Strait, off Petermann Island, in AntarcticaAkademik Shokalskiy at anchor in the Penola Strait, off Petermann Island, in Antarctica. Copyright: AntarcticBoy on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greennblue2000/

The aim of the Polar Code is to ensure that ships operate safely and have minimal impact on Arctic and Antarctic environments and wildlife. The drive behind this Polar Code has been both the increase in shipping in polar waters, particularly during the northern summer as the extent of Arctic sea ice has reduced significantly over the past decade – and the number of shipping incidents in recent years in both polar regions. In the Arctic, the reduction in summer sea ice has allowed increasing numbers of vessels including cargo ships to navigate the “Northern Sea Route” along the coast of northern Russia, and the “Northwest Passage” off Canada and the USA. This reduces the sailing time between western Europe or eastern US and or Canada to the Pacific Ocean, and as a result cuts shipping costs significantly.

This latest incident in Antarctica demonstrates the urgent need to agree and implement a robust Polar Code to ensure the safety of shipping activity in polar waters.

Increased shipping in these remote and vulnerable waters brings greater risk of oil and chemical spills and increased waste. The unique and highly adapted polar wildlife hasn’t experienced these particular human pressures in the past, so on top of adapting to warming oceans and significant change in their icy habitat, they will also have to contend with a busier environment and more pollution. A basic premise of the draft Polar Code is that vessels should plan their operations taking into account the conditions likely to be experienced – the besetment of the Akedemik Shokalskiy demonstrates how difficult this can be.

At the end of last week, headlines around the world claimed  that the rescue of the Akademik Shokalskiy was completed following the transfer of the 52 passengers by helicopter from the Chinese-flagged icebreaker Snow Dragon (Xue Long) to an ice flow and then via a small boat to the Australian ice breaker Aurora Australis. The Snow Dragon,  Aurora Australis and the French-flagged icebreaker l’Astrolabe initially responded to the incident in the hope that a route through the ice could be created to release the Shokalskiy, but the ice was too thick.

However, most of the crew of the Shokalskiy have remained with the ship – and now the Snow Dragon is also trapped by the heavy pack ice! A fourth vessel, the US ice-breaker Polar Star, is on her way to assist the two ships following the earlier rescue mission.

So the incident is far from over and an international response continues. With two ice-strengthened ships and around 133 people trapped by the Antarctic pack ice, a number of questions need to be answered in the Polar Code discussions in London:

Will the mandatory Polar Code deliver the required standards for polar operations?

Is the Polar Code sufficiently comprehensive to address the particulars of this latest incident, which required helicopter operations as the ice breakers were unable to reach the trapped vessel?

Are there further lessons from this incident and the Search and Rescue operations which should inform the development of the Code?

A comprehensive international code for shipping in polar waters is needed more than ever to ensure that ships and their crews and passengers are safe and that the impact of shipping activities on polar wildlife and the environment is kept as low as possible.

Do you have an opinion about the Polar Code or the besetment of the Shokalskiy? Leave us a comment and we’ll post to Rod’s blog.

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