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‘Huge, Historic’ International Pact Governs Shipping in Increasingly Ice-Free Arctic


A landmark maritime agreement for polar shipping …

Ask Lawson Brigham about the Polar Code and he’ll emphatically make it clear that it’s more than just a set of rules and regulations that went into effect on Jan. 1st, requiring bigger freight and passenger ships to be equipped to operate safely in circumpolar regions, with crews adequately trained to pilot the vessels.

Credit KUAC file photo
Lawson Brigham, Coast Guard veteran, maritime expert and UAF distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy, began working on the agreement later known as the Polar Code in the early 1990s.

“This is a huge and historic change for both polar regions,” Brigham said. “The Polar Code, in summary, is a historic governance regime for both polar seas, Arctic and Antarctic.”

Brigham speaks from experience. He’s a former Coast Guard icebreaker captain and maritime-law expert who helped launch the effort in the early 1990s that led to the International Maritime Organization adopting the Polar Code two years ago. The IMO is a specialized United Nations agency that’s responsible for regulating global shipping.

“I was a member of the U.S. delegation to IMO for some of the negotiations,” said Brigham, who’s now a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic Policy with UAF’s International Arctic Research Center. He says it took nearly 25 years of intense negotiating to get the IMO and the world’s seafaring nations to adopt the Polar Code.

“What you have to do, of course, in IMO is to get all of the maritime states of the planet who are members of IMO – which almost everybody, 150 countries – to agree to something new,” he said.

Credit International Maritime Organization
An image from a 2014 presentation by Lawson Brigham during an IMO workshop on safe ship operations in the Arctic Ocean illustrates the international nature of shipping in the region: A Russian tanker built by South Korea and equipped with technology developed by Finland, Canada and the United States prepares to load oil from a U.S.-Russian consortium at an offshore terminal in the Barents Sea off the Russian coast.

The Polar Code, the collective term for a series of amendments to existing maritime agreements, includes provisions that have already been in use by Canada and Russia, Brigham says Russia is the biggest Arctic shipping nation that’s aggressively boosting the industry in the region to take advantage of its increasingly ice-free waters.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jonathan Dale, who oversees the agency’s inspections of vessels operating in waters around Alaska, says it’s ready to begin enforcing those provisions.

“We look at the safety gear, the manning, the licensing,” he said. “Doing a walk-though, checking the machinery.”

Dale says many of the provisions have long been recommended and will now be mandatory. He says they’ll be phased-in over the next couple of years.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.