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Technical Requirements for Ships Operating in the Arctic

(by Karl Magnus Eger and Morten Mejlæander-Larsen)


Among a large number of international codes and conventions , the Convention on Safety of Life at Sea, 1974  (SOLAS) is regarded as the most important of all international conventions concerning the safety of merchant ships capturing all matters relating to international standards for safety and security at sea in all marine regions.  The primary purpose of the convention is to specify minimum standards for the construction, equipping and operation of ships, consistent with their safety. Flag States are responsible to make sure that ships under their flag comply with the requirements, and certificates are approved in the Convention as proof that this has been done.  Control provisions allow parties to inspect vessels of other parties if there are clear grounds for believing that the ship and its equipment do not comply with the requirements. Before the convention becomes binding upon states which have ratified it, individual contracting states must formally accept it into their national maritime regulatory regime. Currently, all the Arctic states have ratified the SOLAS Convention.

The IMO Guidelines: Applicable to Technical Standards in Arctic Waters
The SOLAS Convention applies to ships engaged on international voyages, but do not specify any additional construction regulations and equipment required for operations in Arctic waters. However, an important initiative for such regulations took place within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in the early 1990s, driven by the disaster of Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989.  The IMO recognized the need for recommendatory provisions related to ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters, additional to the requirements contained in existing IMO instruments. In 2002, the Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-Covered Waters (the IMO Guidelines) were published. Member governments were invited to bring the IMO Guidelines to the attention for ship-owners, ship designers, ship builders, ship repairers, equipment manufacturers, installers and all other parties concerned with the operation of ships in Arctic ice-covered waters. The use of such non-binding instruments within international law of the sea is increasing (see chapter 6). . Moreover, adopting regulations as voluntary rules avoids the need for lengthy procedures and the risk of getting only a limited number of ratifications. Nonetheless, with regard to the IMO Guidelines, universal consensus proved to be just as difficult and time consuming to negotiate as a treaty.  
Part A of the IMO Guidelines provides safety recommendations for ships operating in Arctic conditions, additional to existing regulations, in particular the SOLAS Convention , as well as other approved industry guidelines.   While the SOLAS Convention is formally integrated as part of national regulatory, the IMO guidelines’ is provided as non-binding regulations. Nevertheless, the IMO Guidelines provides an opportunity to assess and strengthen guidance of construction and equipment for ships operating in Arctic Waters. During a meeting in London in 2008, several states agreed to cooperate in order to make the Guidelines a mandatory tool. Currently, this is an ongoing process under review by the Maritime Safety Committee and in light of rapidly developing technology and changes in the characteristics of many traditional ship types and equipment used in marine industrial operations. 
Present, the sphere of validity of the IMO Guidelines covers the Arctic waters, north of 60°N only. Yet, the Guidelines defines “Arctic ice covered waters” as an area “(…) in which sea ice concentrations of 1/10 coverage or greater are present and which pose a structural risk to ships” (See Figure 5.1 & introductory chapter).  

Figure 5.1: Geographical scope of the IMO Guidelines for Ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters

Furthermore, in the context of ship operations, the IMO Guidelines relate to ships operating in Arctic ice covered waters.  The IMO Guidelines, however, provide recommendations for ships in those parts of Arctic waters where ice cover makes navigation complicated. “Ship” is defined in paragraph 3.23 as “any vessel required to complying with the 1974 SOLAS Convention”.  This excludes fishing vessels, pleasure yachts, wooden ships of primitive build, cargo ships of less than 500 gross tonnage and naval vessels, whereas passenger ships and cargo ships of 500 gross tonnages or more are subject to the regulations. 
Baltic and Polar Ice Classes
Ships are generally divided into a number of categories according to type and function. To ensure the safety of all types of vessels, each vessel is subject to various rules and standards regarding appropriate use of the vessel, the environment and other issues, as established by the classification societies and other organizations. 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 will depend on type and area of operation. In addition to an ice class, the vessel can be assigned an Icebreaker notation. An icebreaker is a vessel where icebreaking is the main purpose and hence ramming is part of the normal operation.
Today the ice classes are normally divided in two different regimes depending on area of operation and ice conditions. The Finnish Swedish Ice Class Rules (FSICR) are developed for the Baltic Sea and Bay of Bothnia and are today generally applied for vessels operating in areas with first year ice up to 1.2 meters. In other areas where first year ice is dominating, like St. Lawrence and southern part of Sakhalin, the FSICR notations are often applied. For areas with more heavy ice conditions, the Polar Class notations will normally be applied. Table 5.1 shows both the Baltic and Polar Class notations. Ships having a PC7 and PC6 are normally considered as one way equivalent with ICE-1A and ICE-1A* respectively. 
The IMO Guidelines has defined “Polar Class Ship” as “(…) a ship for which a Polar Class has been assigned”.  The IMO Guidelines suggest a classification of Polar Class ships into seven categories according to intended ship operations and the level of ice in the area.
The system is developed to designate differing levels of capability for vessels navigating in Arctic waters. Seven Polar Classes are listed, based on sea ice conditions. Polar Class 7 is the least capable, limited to vessels operating in summer/autumn in thin first year ice (with old ice inclusions), whereas ships of Polar Class 1 are to be capable of operating year-round in all Arctic ice covered waters. 
In a complementary and parallel effort with the IMO Guidelines, the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) has adopted a set of Unified Requirements for member societies. The IACS polar rules are incorporated into the IMO Guidelines.  Currently, the regulations operate with different geographical aspects. In contrast to the IMO Guidelines, which only covers parts of the Arctic, the IACS Unified Requirements are based on both Arctic and Antarctic conditions of navigation.  It must be added that the IMO Assembly recently decided to expand the Guidelines’ geographical scope to also include Antarctica, south of 60° S, applicable after January 1st, 2011. 

Table 5.1: Baltic and Polar Class Notations 

In addition to the class regulations, the Unified Requirements address important aspects of construction for ships of Polar Class. These rules are also considered as supplementary to the IMO Guidelines in technical matters with regard to hull and machinery standards.  The Unified Requirements form part of IACS member rules and apply to ships of member associations contracted for construction on and after 1 March 2008, but are not mandatory.   Having that said, the main purpose is to coordinate IMO/IACS standards for the operation and construction of vessels navigating in Arctic waters.  This process is not yet fully accomplished. However, when risk assessment will be made, it is the responsibility of the ship owner to decide and select a Polar Class appropriate for the ship’s intended service in ice infested waters.  Moreover, all class societies has adopted these notations directly as own regulations. Nonetheless, there are still different systems among individual classification societies (See Appendix 5.1 and 5.2). However, the main development today takes place within the Polar Class regulations. 


    Karl Magnus Eger and Morten Mejlæander-Larsen, 2010, Technical Requirements for Ships Operating in the Arctic, CHNL.©