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Little-known Code Could Have a Major Impact on Polar Environments

Photo: Changing Arctic sea ice conditions are both an opportunity and a threat.
Changing conditions in polar regions are both an opportunity and a threat. Credit: USGS/Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard

Scientists recently identified multiple new trans-Arctic shipping routes that will be accessible to non-ice-strengthened vessels in just a few decades., Given that such routes would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, this research is yet another sobering reminder of the massive changes that anthropogenic climate change has caused. At the other end of the world, parts of the Antarctic are also warming rapidly, allowing vessels to venture into uncharted areas and extending the season where travel is possible. Ensuring that these changes do not add stress to polar ecosystems already suffering from climate change (or put human lives at risk) is an urgent issue.

This week, at a meeting in London, delegates from countries all over the world will meet to discuss international shipping regulations, including critical environmental protections for polar regions. The meeting is officially known as the 57th session of the Design and Equipment Sub-Committee (called DE 57) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an international body that is responsible for developing global regulations for vessels and shipping activities. From reading the title, you can probably get an inkling about why you’ve probably never heard of this meeting or probably even the IMO – it doesn’t sound very exciting or newsworthy. Much of what it tackles is highly technical, relating to the minute details of operating vessels and keeping people safe at sea. However, DE has also been given the critically important task of developing a special set of regulations for ships that will sail in the Arctic and the Antarctic, commonly known as the Polar Code.

This Polar Code represents a phenomenal opportunity to establish environmental safeguards for the poles before ship traffic increases. Taking this precautionary approach to the expansion of activity at the poles means that instead of reacting to environmental damage (for example from an oil spill, waste discharge from ships, or emissions of harmful particulate matter), we can (theoretically) prevent damage from happening. Imposing environmental regulations on commercial sectors often presents a tough challenge for governments. The fact that shipping is already subject to regulations makes the prospect of additional, preventive rules for distant seas a tough sell. As polar shipping traffic grows, however, it will become even more difficult to put new regulations in place since companies will not want to make major changes to their operations. Better to take action now and use scientific information to craft sensible guidelines that will minimize the risk of environmental harm to these sensitive but dangerous areas.

So what makes the polar regions deserving of additional protections? Though the Arctic and the Antarctic are different, they share some important characteristics that make them more vulnerable than warmer areas. Perhaps most important, pollutants – everything from oil to sewage to food waste – breaks down much more slowly in polar waters, causing a greater impact on ecosystems. Following this, there are large congregations of wildlife in relatively small areas at both poles, so one pollution incident can impact huge numbers of animals. As climate warms, ice-dependent polar species will also be threatened by warming temperatures. But as fragile as the poles might be in some respects, they are incredibly tough in others. Whether it’s ice or uncharted waters, the polar regions throw up huge obstacles for human activities, even in our modern era. The combination of dangerous conditions and fragile ecology means that even commonplace activities have potentially enormous environmental ramifications.

The rationale for a Polar Code is clear, and many countries have agreed that it is necessary. However, despite recognition of its importance and of the rapid changes already occurring at the poles, development of the Polar Code has been lagging. In part 2 of this post, I’ll describe some of the obstacles to protecting polar waters.