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Comparison of Technical Requirements for Ships on Arctic Routes

(by Morten Mejlæander-Larsen)


Except from the areas along the coastline, where national requirements apply, the same international maritime regulatory regime applies in the Arctic as for other oceans. The most important international convention concerning the safety of merchant ships is the SOLAS convention, specifying minimum standards for construction, equipment and operation of ships. Flag States are responsible to certify that ships under their flag comply with the requirements. All Arctic states have ratified the SOLAS Convention.

The IMO Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice Covered Waters

The SOLAS convention does not specify any additional construction regulations and equipment required for operations in Arctic waters. Recognizing the need for additional recommendatory provisions related to ships operating in Arctic ice covered waters, IMO initiated the work resulting in the voluntary Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-Covered Waters (the IMO Guidelines), were issued in 2002.

Baltic and Polar Ice Classes

All vessels are subject to various rules and standards depending on type of vessel and operation. Compliance with these standards has to be certified and documented, normally by issuance of a certificate.

Ships intended for operation in ice covered waters will normally be built with an additional ice class notation. The different ice classes include requirements to strengthening of hull, rudder and the propulsion system. Specification of an ice class notation is voluntary and the actual ice class decided by the owner will depend on type and area of operation. In addition to an ice class, the vessel can be assigned an Icebreaker notation including additional strengthening for vessels where icebreaking is the main purpose.

Ice classes are divided into two different regimes; the Baltic Ice Class rules for ships operating in the Baltic Sea and other areas with lighter first year ice conditions including areas like St. Lawrence and southern part of Sakhalin, and the Polar Ice Class rules for all areas with more heavy and multiyear ice. The Baltic Ice Class rules are developed by the Finnish Swedish Maritime Authorities, while the Polar Ice Class rules have been developed by the Classification Societies (See Table 5.1).

The IMO Guidelines includes no direct technical requirements to hull and propulsion, but it refers to the additional requirements in the Polar Ice Classes developed and issued by the main Classification Societies members of the International Association for Classification Societies, IACS.The additional requirements are divided into different steps depending on actual ice condition in area of operation. The Polar Classes are divided into seven levels, where  PC7 is the least capable, limited to vessels operating in summer/autumn in thin first year ice (with old ice inclusions), whereas ships of PC1 are capable of operating year-round in all Arctic ice covered waters. It is voluntary to include an Ice Class, but National and Port Authorities can require an ice class before accepting entrance into some national waters, a port or request for ice breaker assistance.

The Northern Sea Route

Russia regulates shipping along the NSR on the basis of UNCLOS III, Article 234 and domestic legislation. Regulations adopted in 1990 and 1996 allow navigation on the NSR on a non-discriminatory basis for ships of all nationalities based on Guide for Navigation through the NSR, 1996 (NSR Guidelines). The guideline includes some technical requirements for the vessels. Basically ships navigating the NSR must satisfy the applicable Rules of the Russian Register of Shipping, but equivalent Baltic and Polar Ice Classes are accepted. A transit fee to cover the expenses for the ice breaker support and administration will be charged, but the sum to pay for a NSR transit is at the moment (2010) under evaluation by NSR administration.

The Northwest Passage

Canada divides the Arctic area into 16 shipping safety control zones based on the ice conditions in each zone. Canadian maritime jurisdiction is divided into Non-Arctic waters and Arctic waters. Shipping in the NWP are primarily governed by the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, 1970 (AWPPA) and other regulations under this Act, in particular the Arctic Shipping Pollution Prevention Regulations, 1978 (ASPPR) The ASPPR provides detailed requirements for ship design, construction and operation into the various zones. Canada’s ability to support any shipping activity on the NWP is limited because of lack of icebreaking services during the winter season as the Canadian ice breakers are not in operation during the winter.  This means that shipping on the NWP have to be performed without icebreaker assistance during the winter season.  

In 1996, the Arctic Ice Regime Shipping System (AIRSS) were introduced as a regulatory standard providing a formula to calculate an Ice Numeral based on known ice conditions in the zone and the Ice Classification of the vessel. The results of the formula will advice the master to go or not.

Canada recognizes the need for harmonization and a process to adopt the IACS/IMO polar class rules into their own regulations is initiated. At the same time, Canada has encouraged other nations to do the same. This means that the CAC system will be outdated in the future.

The Passages in Comparison

Generally one can say that the mandatory technical requirements when operating the transpolar passage are similar to any other international waters. The specification of an ice class is voluntary and up to the owner/operator to decide. The additional requirements for the NSR are more focused on the operational and practical aspects supporting a safe and uninterrupted voyage while the special requirements along the NWP have the environmental aspects to prevent pollution as the main objective.

There are today no additional requirements to ice class, equipment or training of crew of crew for vessels entering Arctic waters, except from national requirements for internal waters. Several nations are behind an initiative and see the need for a set of mandatory requirements to ensure future safe shipping in the Arctic.


    Morten Mejlæander-Larsen, 2010, Comparison of Technical Requirements for Ships on Arctic Routes , CHNL.©