Polar Maritime Seminar

Latest Polar shipping issues explored at Polar Maritime Seminar

Wide-ranging agenda on Polar specific maritime matters discussed at Seminar jointly organized by IMO and The Nautical Institute 


Around 150 people gathered for two days of discussion on a broad range of topics relating to shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic at the Polar Maritime Seminar (31 October-1 November) at IMO Headquarters in London. Speakers and delegates included representatives of IMO member states, Arctic indigenous peoples, academics and industry representatives. For many in the room it was the first time they had joined an event of this kind in-person since before the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The event was designed to provide an update on Polar shipping developments, and a chance to share information on international efforts to support Polar shipping to become safer, greener and more sustainable.   

Sessions across the two days ranged from a round-up of trends in Arctic and Antarctic vessel activity, which included a presentation from the Captain of RRS Sir David Attenborough, to an examination of the adverse impact on marine life of underwater noise from ships, the Arctic Indigenous Community, the importance of training and education of seafarers operating in Polar waters and an update on IMO activities with regard to the Polar Code.  


Polar maritime trends 

In the opening panel discussion, Trends in Arctic and Antarctic Vessel Activity, Professor Jackie Dawson from the University of Ottawa in Canada who specialises in studying climate change, outlined some of the changes in Polar climate patterns. She reminded the room that the Arctic region is heating up at between two and four times the global average, and the Antarctic at a little less above the global average.  

Professor Dawson asserted that, whilst shipping traffic is not causing climate change, it is enabling it. She pointed out that 10 or 20 years ago there was no apparent correlation between the loss of sea ice and ship traffic, but academics are now seeing some correlation.   

Posing the question, “Is this to do with tourism?” she stated that pleasure craft are now more likely to operate in high risk “hot spot” areas such as Franklin Strait, Frobisher Bay and Lancaster Sound.   

Captain Matthew Neill, Master of the Polar research vessel, RRS Sir David Attenborough, delivered a presentation which outlined the design and specification of the ship which made its maiden voyage a year ago: 120 metres long, with a helicopter deck, two survey launches plus two inflatables. The design of the multi-disciplinary research vessel was, Capt. Neill said, an attempt to balance “the tried and tested with cutting edge technology”.  

Capt. Neill detailed some of the design challenges they had faced, and how a scale model had been built to undergo tests for ice breaking. All kit installed on the ship can operate at -35 degrees Celsius, he said.  

Tests have been conducted for a maximum expected time to rescue from ice or sea, he said, as per IMO’s Polar Code (officially named the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters). And successful ice trials were conducted in January and February 2022.   


The impact of increased Polar tourism  

Lisa Kelley, Deputy Executive Director of IAATO, representing tour operators in Antarctica, summarised developments in tourism in the region. Data shows that 98 per cent of activity takes place around the Antarctic Peninsula. New vessels have an increased range, she said, which has seen the Antarctic tourist season extend from running November to March to October to April. Sixty-seven vessels are expected to operate in the Antarctic this year.  

The kind of tourism on offer in the Antarctic is also changing, Ms. Kelley said, with helicopter flights, kayaking and even paddle boarding now available. And IAATO has seen an increase in yachts carrying a maximum of just 12 people on recreational trips departing from South America.  

Whilst the previous projected increased interest in Antarctic tourism was stalled by the global Covid-19 pandemic, growth in the number of trips to the areas is now expected to resume. In fact, this year is forecast to be the largest season on record.  

Ms. Kelley pledged IAATO’s continued efforts to preserve the Antarctic’s precious ecosystem whilst still allowing visitors to travel there. “I look forward to continuing to work with governments and scientists on the effects of any human presence in the Antarctic,” she said.  

Concerns around an increasing rate in the number of accidents involving tourist vessels were raised during questions to the panel from the floor. In response, Capt. Neill suggested people might be “pushing things a bit further to get more of an experience”.  

Prof. Dawson agreed it was a result of increased traffic in Polar regions. “The rate of accidents is increasing because of adventurers,” she said, and added this stark warning: “There is a perception that climate change is making Polar regions accessible – it’s not. Certain parts of The Northwest Passage are completely open, but certain parts are completely choked up.” 

IATTO’s Lisa Kelley assured everyone that tourist operators are “very, very aware” of their role in ensuring safety on board their vessels, for instance by insisting that guests complete medical questionnaires before boarding their ships. She said, too, that mock rescue drills are held each year around the continent.  


Polar regions regulations update  

The Seminar’s second panel concentrated on the latest regulatory developments around shipping operating in the Polar regions. Dr. Sascha Pristrom, Polar Code Implementation Officer at IMO, began with an update on IMO’s work in this area. As well as IMO’s guidelines for ships operating in Polar waters, he said he hoped a draft amendment on new ventilation requirements for life rafts would be adopted at the next meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) to be held 2-11 November.  

IMO’s Sub Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) has proposed amendments which would see an extension to the Polar Code’s regulations to include two new chapters on voyage planning and safety navigation outside of territorial seas. The proposed amendments would come into force in July 2026. 

Dr. Pristrom ended with a thought about what future regulations might be needed. “The idea of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operating in Polar waters might be far-fetched,” he said, “but we might have to deal with the idea in the near future”.  

Patricia Ortuzar, Director of Argentina’s National Antarctic Programme, spoke about regulatory developments within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty. She set out how the Treaty has been amended since its introduction in 1959, for example by restricting the use of Heavy Fuels in Antarctica, around search and rescue coordination protocols and control of passenger ships bound for the Antarctic Treaty area.  

She also highlighted the challenges of increased and diversified operations by Antarctic programmes and by private individuals; the impact of climate change in the Antarctic Treaty area; the entry into force of regulations for the prevention of pollution by sewage under Annex IV of MARPOL; and the necessity of coordination, communication and the opening of platforms for the exchange of information and experiences.  


Working with the Arctic Indigenous Community 

The third session of the Seminar was dedicated to issues concerning the Inuit community, indigenous to the Arctic. Lisa Koperqualuk, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Canada, explained the importance to the Inuit people of a clean, safe global shipping fleet. 

“Inuit culture and biodiversity are tied,” she said, adding, “We are bound to the marine environment and the shipping industry”.  

The Inuit Circumpolar Council, founded in 1977, is an international non-governmental organization which holds Consultative Status II at the United Nations. It represents 180,000 people living in the Polar region whose homeland has been formed over thousands of years.  

Ms. Koperqualuk emphasised the benefits of the policy makers using the knowledge held within the Inuit community of what is happening in the Arctic, for instance patterns of ice melt, the location of breeding grounds, and the increase in maritime traffic.  

Addressing the impact of ships on Arctic marine wildlife, Ms. Koperqualuk said underwater noise from ships, fuel emissions, contaminants and invasive species are all of huge concern to Inuit people.  

“Possible oil spills would be catastrophic to our way of life,” she said, and called for swift mandatory action from IMO to reduce carbon emissions rather than a continued reliance on voluntary actions which she claimed have not worked.  

Ms. Koperqualuk likened the challenges facing Polar indigenous communities to those of Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) and said she hoped to continue to build partnerships with such States to work to find solutions to decarbonization of the international shipping fleet.   

The session had been due to include a presentation by Mr. Kuupik Kleist, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Greenland, but bad weather meant he couldn’t fly to London. Instead, Lisa Koperqualuk spoke on Mr. Kleist’s behalf.  

She stressed the threat climate change is to the most biologically productive areas in the north of the Arctic Circle, on which Inuit communities depend for food. The need to protect that is urgent, she said. “Nature and climate are not waiting. We need to act now.” 

Making a plea that Inuit voices should be listened to, she said Inuit people hold knowledge which should be used to complement data-based insight to determine how best to manage the impact of climate change in the Arctic, and the contribution to it made by shipping.  

Ms. Koperqualuk concluded by calling for two things from IMO: to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and to support a move to give Inuit full consultative status at IMO.  


Ship Design and Construction 

The afternoon of the first day of the Seminar kicked off with a panel session on Developments in Polar Ship Design and Construction. Loukas Kontogiannis, Technical  Officer, Marine Environment Division, IMO, provided an update on IMO amendments to MARPOL Annexes I, II, IV, V and VI, and detailed IMO’s timetable for implementation of its Initial Strategy to phase out GHG emissions from international shipping. The Initial Strategy is due to be revised in July 2023.  

The decarbonizing of international shipping through the transition to low- and zero-carbon fuels is in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway, but Mr Kontogiannis conceded Polar-specific considerations may need to be given to the Strategy, for instance around the use of heavy fuels, and on alternative fuels which may solidify when spilled in cold waters.  

Jon-Arve Røyset, Senior Advisor, Norwegian Coastal Administration, gave a presentation on the technical properties of various new fuel oils and how they react when spilled in cold water. A PAME and EPPR study concluded there are great variations in oil properties, that oil spill preparedness services must be able to handle those, and that a high solidification point and flow properties create great challenges for existing oil preparedness systems. 

Rob Hindley, Head of Machinery and Structure at Aker Arctic Technology discussed how the regulatory environment is influencing the design of ships capable of operating in Polar regions.  

“We have come to the end of pushing the envelope,” he said, predicting incremental design changes from now on rather than ground-breaking developments.  

He pointed out that ice breaking is power intensive, something that cannot be got around, and that designing-in ice breaking capability is expensive. New efficiency regulations – the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) for open water ships - are driving bow designs, Mr. Hindley said.  



The American Bureau of Shipping’s Director of Polar Research and Ice Class Ships, James Bond, and Rob Hindley from Aker Arctic Technology looked at the status and usage of POLARIS, the Polar Operational Limit Assessment Risk Indexing System. It has multiple uses, for instance, evaluating risk and voyage planning but, Mr. Bond noted, the key to understanding POLARIS properly is training – including extensive knowledge of sea ice. He also observed that the tool was not always being used appropriately.  

Rob Hindley concentrated on the role of data to make POLARIS effective – what is the right data, how should it be collected and in what form, and what would happen with it? He also stressed the importance of “groundtruthing” of POLARIS with observations of actual ice conditions in front of the ship.  

Contributing from the floor of the Seminar, Lisa Kelley from IAATO said that tourism operators are "hungry" to provide data for POLARIS but she cautioned that if they were to be asked for it by several agencies at once, it could become overwhelming. She echoed earlier comments that had been made calling for a centralisation and standardisation of data collection accessible to a number of organisations.  


Underwater Noise from Ships 

Day one of the Seminar concluded with an informative session on work to mitigate the adverse impact to the marine environment of underwater noise from ships.  

Michelle Sanders, the new Alternate Representative of Canada to IMO outlined work Canada has been doing with IMO to understand the issue of underwater noise, much of which is caused by propeller cavitation. Work is currently underway to review IMO’s 2014 voluntary guidelines on reducing underwater noise from commercial shipping. (See here for more on the 2014 guidelines.)  

Ms. Sanders described the terms of reference agreed at SDC8 for a correspondence group as “ambitious”. They include engagement with Inuit and other indigenous communities and the incorporation of indigenous knowledge. The group was also tasked with considering the impact and interrelation of other regulatory goals, for example ship safety. 

She noted that during the correspondent group process, updated guidance should include consideration of the uniquely sensitive environment of the Arctic.  

There is no simple solution to the issue of underwater noise radiating from ships, Ms. Sanders concluded, and guidance must reflect the complexity of the problem. She noted, too, the possible co-benefits of reducing noise and, for instance, fuel efficiency. 

She ended by cautioning against allowing the topic of underwater noise to “fly under the agenda when, for example, climate change is the focus,” adding, “It is leading to changes in migration patterns.”  

Dr. Melanie Lancaster, Senior Specialist at World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Programme, picked up on the theme of the impact of noise on marine species in the Arctic. Whilst we know most about marine mammals in this context, she said invertebrates such as mussels also respond negatively to underwater noise. She described how ice cover can alter the marine soundscape in the Arctic Ocean, that ships which are designed specifically for Arctic operations are a source of additional and different noise, and that marine mammals and ships share the same transit routes.   

“The region is changing quickly. Climate Change is warming the region more than three times faster and leading to the loss of marine wildlife,” Dr Lancaster said. She added that an increase in shipping in recent years has led to an increase, too, in underwater noise.  

WWF is calling for the potential for noise reduction in three Arctic regions where there’s a high overlap of shipping and noise sensitive species to be prioritised: Bering Strait, Baffin Bay/Davis Strait, and Barents Sea.  

WWF’s goal ultimately, Dr. Lancaster said, is for underwater noise to be managed at safe levels for noise sensitive species to promote a healthy Arctic Ocean. She called for a precautionary “hold the noise” [at current levels] approach to be taken in Arctic waters.   


Search and Rescue in Polar Regions 

Day two of IMO’s Polar Maritime Seminar began with a look at search and rescue (SAR) in both the Arctic and Antarctic. A presentation by Barbara Hickey, Principal Advisor International, Maritime New Zealand, was followed by a run through by Dr Knut Espen Solberg, Project Manager with the Norwegian Space Agency of the latest trends in communications technology. One development to look out for, for example, is broadband supplied by Starlink to start operating in Polar environments by the end of 2022.  

Benjamin Strong, Director, Amber Maritime Relations with the US Coast Guard, then moved on to review what lessons have been learned from Arctic SAR exercises. He listed several exercises that had taken place over the past decade – many of which had highlighted the need to track passenger casualties. 

Mr. Strong detailed a number of initiatives in place to broaden expertise and build on lessons learned from such exercises including the Arctic Council Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Search and Rescue Expert Group (EPPR SAR EG); a Norway/USA co-sponsored project to develop a library for all arctic incident and exercise after action reports; and IMO’s Polar Code Survivability Validation, a US-sponsored project to verify IMO Polar Code survival time requirements. 

He ended his presentation with his personal observations of some basic practical issues he had faced when taking part in an SAR exercise himself. His glasses had been knocked off when donning his life jacket which meant he couldn’t see to secure it safely and, once on board the lifeboat, he hadn’t been able to get the seat belt on over his life jacket.  

He ended with a challenge: “Let’s do better.”  

Questions from the floor followed. Issues raised included whether those going to Polar areas have enough basic competency, should they need to survive in a cold climate; and the benefits of including local and indigenous communities in SAR protocols, given that they can often be first responders in search and rescue scenarios. 


The importance of training and education 

Moderator John Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Nautical Institute, described this panel as “The most important session of the day – about our people and how they’re prepared”.   

Mr. Lloyd first handed the floor to Captain Duke Snider, CEO of Martech Polar. He began by quoting William Scoresby, a whaler in 1820 - “the first true ice navigator”, he said – on the years it takes to learn the way ice moves and how to work with it. And he cited Ulf Ryder on Stena Seabulk who said in 2005, “it takes as long to train an Ice Master as it does a brain surgeon”.  

He spoke about the need to have practical experience of operating in icy waters, beyond the current requirement to be certified, so as to correctly assess real-time ice conditions, and to interpret ice charts and POLARIS data.  

Cautioning that climate change is making the Polar shipping environment more variable, Capt. Snyder encouraged ships officers to obtain the Nautical Institute’s Ice Navigator Certificate, an internationally recognized qualification designed to complement their Polar Code training, giving them experience in the operation of vessels in ice-covered waters. 

The role of POLARIS in judging sea ice conditions was examined by Jarkko Toivola, Chief Maritime Specialist, Director, Waterways, and Head of the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency’s Maritime Unit. POLARIS is a useful strategic and tactical level planning tool giving an early prediction of ice conditions, he said, “But it requires proper understanding and competence to execute a plan – or divert,” he added.  

Milton Baron-Perico, Technical Officer in IMO’s Maritime Safety Division ran through the current training landscape for seafarers navigating in Polar waters.  

Chapter 12 of the Polar Code covers manning and training as well as Chapter V of the STCW Convention. IMO has developed Basic and Advanced training modules for ships operating in polar waters.  

Under a Memorandum of Understanding between IMO and Transport Canada there is a project to train seafarers operating in Polar waters. It is designed to assist maritime training instructors in the development of competence-based training programmes, update existing programmes and improve delivery of specific IMO model courses. As part of this there have been five “train the trainer” workshops held around the world - and online during Covid. 

In addition, there are several IMO e-learning courses available which enables more instructors to take part. 


Safety in Polar waters 

Further panels discussed support services available to enable maritime safety in Polar regions; the safety of fishing vessels which included discussion of the current status of the 2012 Cape Town Agreement and the benefits for States to ratify the Agreement, given the large number of fishing vessels operating in Polar waters.  

The Seminar ended with a session which looked at Polar shipping from the perspective of an insurer and an inspector.  

See event programme via here and photos of the event here