Polar Code enters into force, but doubts remain about its ability to protect environment

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

On January 1 of this year, the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code entered into force. The new regulations are intended to improve safety at sea and environmental protection in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Years in the making, the Polar Code couldn’t have come sooner, for the number of vessels, particularly cruise ships, in the Arctic grows each year. Cruises are increasingly venturing into the Arctic in order to cater to tourists seeking destinations marketed as pristine and untouched. And indeed at a regional scale, the world’s northernmost oceans are relatively unpolluted compared to the rest of the world, as the map below reveals.


Ocean pollution levels in the Arctic in 2013. Data: National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Map: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics.

Yet trading a holiday in the Mediterranean for one in the Arctic comes with consequences for fragile polar ecosystems. In the Arctic, cruise ships are often mentioned in the same breath as “ecotourism,” with tourism seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to industries like oil and gas or mining. Yet cruise ships generate large amounts of pollution. In terms of wastewater generation, cruise ships can also be worse offenders than lightly staffed cargo ships simply by virtue of having so many people on board.

Cruise-related pollution includes black water (sewage), gray water (from sinks, laundries, showers, etc.), and oily bilge water. Cruise ships also spew black carbon into the air, especially when they burn heavy fuel oil (HFO), which organizations like HFO-Free Arctic are trying to ban from the region. When the soot released into the air from burning HFO falls onto ice and snow in the Arctic, it can accelerate melting and, by consequence, climate change.

Epitomizing the boom in Arctic shipping in part thanks to more navigable waters, last summer, the first-ever cruise ship transit of the Northwest Passage took place. Though Crystal Serenity’s pioneering voyage attracted major headlines, more modest cruises into the Arctic are arguably exerting a bigger overall impact. Crystal Serenity had some 800 passengers and at least 600 crew. Yet according to John Kaltenstein, a Senior Policy Analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., 10 other cruise ships with over 1,000 passengers traveled to the Arctic last year. That makes for 10,000 people who sailed through the Arctic in addition to Crystal Serenity’s high-paying customers, all leaving various forms of pollution in their wake.

Many of these cruises travel to places like Svalbard and Iceland, where high levels of marine traffic have resulted in elevated ocean pollution. The waters around Iceland, in fact, appear almost indistinguishable from the heavily trafficked waters around the United Kingdom. Though Iceland is imagined as lying on the frigid periphery of Europe, the high levels of pollution around its coastline reveal its deep integration into the North Atlantic shipping network.


Polluted waters around northern Norway and Svalbard.


Polluted waters around Iceland and the North Atlantic.

Even Greenland, which sees a lot of smaller-scale traffic from personal vessels and cargo ships making deliveries up and down the coast, has relatively polluted waters.


Crystal Serenity voluntarily adhered to stricter environmental controls than required by law, including using marine distillate fuel, which is a better grade than HFO. But Arctic cruises that are away from the spotlight are not likely to voluntarily follow the same standards set by the high-profile voyage.

That’s where the Polar Code could come in useful, but the policy is not as strong as it could be. The regulations ban heavy fuel oil in Antarctica, but not the Arctic. Attendants at the 10th Arctic Shipping Summit in Montreal next week will discuss whether to expand the ban into the Arctic. The Polar Code also prohibits oily discharge, but it fails to mention of gray water even though it can introduce “faecal coliform bacteria, nutrients, food waste, and medical and dental waste” into the surrounding seas, according to a report associated with the 2013 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.

Poster of the Polar Code's regulations pertaining to the environment.

Poster of the Polar Code’s regulations pertaining to the environment. Source: IMO

For a story I wrote for this month’s issue of The Maritime Executive on pollution solutions for the global cruise shipping industry, I interviewed John Kaltenstein, senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., regarding the environmental impacts of Arctic cruising. He was kind enough to let me republish our wide-ranging conversation in full. We touched on the Polar Code, cruise-related pollution, the fate of the Arctic Ocean under Trump, and what the deliberate pollution cover-up at Princess Cruise Lines means for the Arctic.

MB: How will the new Polar Code affect cruise shipping?

JK: In a nutshell, I don’t think it will affect it that much. There seems to be a tendency or a movement of larger cruise ships into the Arctic. I think our records indicated that there were 11 that had over 1,000 passengers and crew that traveled in Arctic in 2016, and I don’t think that trend will diminish in any way going forward – especially in light of the successful cruise ship activity of the Serenity through the Northwest Passage last summer. So I think the industry is flourishing. From a lot of parts of the world – Asia, Oceania – we’ll see continued activity into the Arctic. I don’t think the Code will constrain that activity.”

MB: Will the Polar Code help reduce pollution? 

JK: The environmental groups were fairly critical of the environmental portion of the Polar Code. Heavy fuel oil was a big issue for us. There’s a recommendation there with respect to the Arctic, but we felt more should have been done with respect to a fuel that poses so much risk to the region.

Some of the other provisions in the Code also didn’t improve the situation all that much. When you look at the sewage provisions, we don’t believe they added a lot. There, of course, is no Polar Code provision with respect to gray water, which is a big issue when you’re talking about cruise ships – the amount of wastewater at issue. Those are the areas we felt are deficient and still are. Hopefully, they’ll be addressed at some time going forward. As for now, there are definitely some large gaps when you’re talking about pollution control and some of the environmental provisions in the code. And cruise ships do represent a lot of waste stream. And especially in an area like the fragile Arctic, we believe a lot more can be done. We’ll have to look to other measures besides the Polar Code.

MB: Do you think cruise ships could take it on themselves to try to reduce pollution? 

JK: A lot can be done voluntarily. There will probably be some focus on what cruise ship lines are doing in the Arctic. As I mentioned, with the 11 cruise ships with 1,000 passengers or more, more and more lines will be entering into those waters, and I think they should be evaluated because the types of operations can really differ.

The Serenity did a number of positive things including using marine distillate fuel, but many aren’t sure that others will follow suit in terms going above and beyond certain environmental aspects. I think this is a situation where the market and information can make a difference in terms of environmental performance in terms of the industry. Because the Code is not going to provide the stringency we need, and national regulations do vary a good deal. So this is one of those areas where we could see some significant improvement by looking at what actors are doing. If consumers and policymakers need information about practices, those voyages need to be transparent. That would help a lot. Then we can talk about setting high standards and using good practices. There’s been some good stuff in the Arctic Council about best practices, and we’re hoping these can translate into real world benefits and minimizing risks. The environmental community would like to see that, as well as international organizations in the Arctic, policy makers, and the Council.

In the short term, that’s what we’re going to have to look at. We might see some efforts at the national level. And you know, if we’re talking about voluntary measures, the lines can do that immediately this coming season. We’re hopeful and I think the issues in the Arctic are being covered a lot more – somewhat in mainstream press, but definitely in niche and industry press. Sea ice and climate change have definitely been getting some attention in the mainstream press as to how that’s opened up the Arctic for travel and leisure.

MB: What is the number one threat posed by Arctic cruising?

JK: The number one threat is still represented by heavy fuel oil in terms of both spill [possibility] but also the pollution profile in terms of warming and air quality impacts. I think we could do without it. We have been doing without it in some parts of the world for a good chunk of time. For us, it really comes down to the industry showing the will to be an environmentally responsible actor. I think the rhetoric is often there, their professing to be responsible actors, but the will is often lacking. You’re judged on what you do up there, and this is one of those very discrete cases where you’re operating on heavy fuel oil or liquefied natural gas. What are you doing up there to make a difference in terms of your impact or profile? I think we have a good precedent with the Serenity. Hopefully other lines in the region can follow suit. It’s definitely a good start.

There are other issues. Wastewater needs to be taken into account: what kinds of treatment systems, what are they doing with their gray water – it’s a concern for environmental groups and Arctic organizations, especially in the Bering Strait area. There’s lots of concern about what this influx of cruise ship activity, especially large cruise ship activities, will bring in terms of discharges and how it will affect their way of life and subsistence practices. That’s a very real issue and if you’re familiar with the recent executive order with the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resiliency Area, it’s a good indication of how concerned they are because there is specific reference to discharge in the order.

MB: How do you think the Trump administration will impact regulations on pollution in the Arctic?

JK: I’m hopeful there will be a continuation of the good policies that have put forward by the Trudeau and Obama administrations to safeguard the region. We’ll see what transpires. I think they made a very good start, both countries, especially of late, to chart out what course they’d like to see in the Arctic.

MB: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JK: The situation with Princess and the criminal charges and the fine1 – that brings up some real issues in terms of compliance monitoring. This is an issue that concerns me a lot with respect to shipping and the cruise industry. If you look at the different regimes, in Alaska, we have a fairly comprehensive regime in place that pertains to their waters that has stringent regulations with respect to sewage and gray water effluent standards that it must meet including permitting, sampling, monitoring, and record-keeping. It’s a whole gamut of things that one looks at. We also have Ocean-Ranger – independent 3rd party monitors.

And the Princess case is an important one because I think it shows if you peel back the curtain, and you look beyond that, you see that the situation with Princess was largely premised on a whistleblower incident. Had we not had that, those violations could have continued to this day and we would not know about it – and the records go back to 2005 in terms of when the improprieties started at Princess. I think that should give people pause that especially when operating in very remote regions, if there’s not a third party Ocean Ranger or some kind of independent monitor in place, we don’t really know what’s going on at sea. And the practices like these, like we saw with the Princess Caribbean and some of the other Princess ships, and what was also admitted to, and other Carnival family ships, we’re left in the dark. And we don’t have a rigorous enough compliance monitoring system in place for temperate waters, let alone the Arctic. So that gives me a lot of concern.

I think policy makers and others really have to look at this seriously and the industry itself. Obviously they’re going to be under this court-ordered environmental compliance plan, but there’s also Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, etc. – they weren’t part of this settlement. So I think we really have to look seriously and evaluate our compliance schemes, especially in the Arctic. And I haven’t been given any reassurance that we’ll be in good hands when we’re operating more in the Arctic, and that’s a very real concern. That for me would be up there with actual pollution source. It’s one of the biggest deficiencies that I see right now. Because obviously the Coast Guard is doing the best they can with limited resources, but they’re not out there on the ships with every line, every cruise ship, in the engine room, etc.

And you know, practices like these that we saw with the Princess incident could foreseeably occur in the Arctic and we would not know. We wouldn’t have the ability to stop those. That’s a problem. I think Friends of the Earth are going be looking more at what can be done in terms of these regimes to see what we can do to make sure the environment is being protected. I think looking at Alaska and maybe elsewhere to see what has worked to see that the standards will be complied with is a very important way to go.


In December 2016, Princess Cruise Lines was fined $40 million after the company pleaded guilty to seven felony charges of illegally dumping oily waste into the sea between 2005 and 2013.

A Russian icebreaker and an Italian pianist float into the Arctic…

From floating piano concerts to new icebreakers launching, a lot is going on in the Arctic lately.

On June 16, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker, Arktika, in St. Petersburg. It’s approximately two football fields long and can punch through ice thirteen feet deep. A video from Russia Today documents its maiden voyage into the Baltic Sea:

The reason the ship looks a little odd is because the 2,400-ton superstructure with cabins for 75 crewmembers will be placed into position following the launch, according to PortNews. Once this is complete, the Russian website Hi-News reports that Arktika “will not have to stand idly without business. Arktika will come to the assistance of tankers carrying raw materials from Yamal and other northern resource deposits to the East, in accordance with the economic cooperation framework framework with the governments of the Asian-Pacific region.” In other words, Arktika’s primary role will be to guide ships transporting oil and gas resources from the Russian offshore to Asia via the Northern Sea Route.

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly traveled to St. Petersburg to watch the launch. She spoke with Sergey Kiryenko, head of Russia’s nuclear energy agency, on the VIP platform of the docks. He explained to her in Russian, “Asia is developing fast. And if ships can cut through the Arctic, they can get from Asia to Europe in a week. Russia stands to profit hugely as previously frozen waters melt. And that helps explain why when its economy is in crisis, Russia is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars on a supersized icebreaker.”

So while some American media and commentators see militaristic overtones in the launch of Arktika, economic imperatives are also motivating Russia’s construction of these floating megastructures. Arktika is just the first of its kind. Two more similar icebreakers will be built under Project 22220 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg for commissioning in 2019 and 2020. By that year, the U.S. might just be getting started with constructing a new icebreaker.

In contrast to the largely commercial role of Arktika, Russia, with a tad less fanfare, launched a new, diesel-electric military icebreaker, Ilya Muromets, earlier in JuneThe vessel is Russia’s first new military icebreaker in 45 years. While Russian state-owned company Rosatomflot will operate Arktika, the Russian Navy will operate Ilya Muromets, named after the legendary medieval warrior. A decision on building more icebreakers like Ilya will be made later this year. Ilya Muromets’ launch can be watched here:

The top comment on this YouTube video? “Выражаем огромную благорданость за санкции)))))))))))”, or “We express our deep thanks for sanctions,” representing a view within Russia that sanctions have actually stimulated homegrown construction of military and commercial icebreakers like Arktika and Ilya Muromets. 

Concert on ice

Amidst all the industrial ribbon cutting and icebreaking, Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi recently performed a piece he composed called “Elegy for the Arctic” on a floating platform in the icy green waters off Svalbard. Calving ice from the Wahlenbergbreen glacier creaked, cracked, and bubbled over the musician’s melancholy piano chords. The concert, arranged by Greenpeace, formed part of its campaign to “save the Arctic.”

The environmental non-profit’s efforts to prevent oil and gas drilling in the region have lately benefited from a drop in oil prices, which have stymied the oil majors from developing resources in the region. Yet even though companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have withdrawn from Arctic exploration in recent years, they still have their eyes on the long-term prize of offshore oil.

Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips all wrote letters to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management last week during its consultation period for the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program. Shell expressed, “We continue to believe offshore Alaska and the broader Arctic have strong exploration potential, and that these areas could ultimately be important sources of energy.” Statoil’s letter argues, “Statoil believes that the three proposed Alaska OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) lease sales should be maintained without further access restrictions.”


Their comments echoed those expressed in a letter by a number of prominent political officials, including President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense and the supreme Allied commander of NATO. The letter states, “Arctic offshore energy development will occur, whether or not the U.S. participates, as other countries pursue the Arctic’s large energy resources to meet long-term energy needs,” right before mentioning Russia and China’s Arctic activities in a wary tone. “Even China, calling itself a “near-Arctic” state, has been building new icebreakers, encouraging Chinese shipping companies to use Arctic sea routes, and making resource-oriented investments in Arctic countries,” the letter notes.

Russia and China, however, aren’t the only ones developing the Arctic. Just a couple of hundred miles from the Greenpeace piano performance off Svalbard, Norway is developing its Goliat offshore oil field, which is the northernmost in the world. And across the Arctic, Canada is completing a highway to the Beaufort Sea, which will facilitate year-round access to the immense oil and gas reserves there. But saying that Norway or Canada are developing their northern infrastructure and natural resources doesn’t cause enough of a scare to pressure BOEM into going ahead with its lease sale than mentioning Russia and China. So if claims are going to be made that the removal of the Alaskan offshore from the leasing sale would mean that America is falling behind in the Arctic, it’s worth being clear that the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon are not the only ones ahead of it in the game – and for that reason, the Arctic is not going to fall into their control anytime soon.

Greenland pioneers Arctic tourism – and mining


The Russell Glacier outside Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The world’s largest island has risen to the lofty ranks of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 countries to visit in 2016. This past October, the travel guidebook publisher included Greenland on its top 10 list with traditional tourist magnet countries like the USA, Japan, and Australia, along with a couple of tropical archipelagos: Palau and Fiji.

Anders Stenbakken, CEO of Visit Greenland, a tourism company wholly owned by the Government of Greenland, expressed, “It is a great honor to be a part of the travel magazine and to be selected as one of the World’s Best Destinations 2016. The increased focus on Greenland as a unique travel destination is due to the fact that more and more travel agencies have included Greenland in their travel programs. New products are continuously developed and several air routes have opened, still with more to come. With a combination of improved marketing as well as higher accessibility of the country, Greenland is now a destination where travelers can make their dreams come true.”

I communicated over email with Kirstine Dinesen, marketing coordinator at AW Media, an online communication agency collaborating with Visit Greenland about the country’s inclusion in this list. She noted, “For many years Greenland has been neglected by world travelers as the country often is associated with nothing but ice and snow. But the Arctic country has much more to offer. The world just has to recognize this. Hopefully the inclusion of Greenland makes the world see the unique adventures the country holds.”


The author walking in central-western Greenland. Photo: Lincoln Pitcher.

Dinesen extolled Greenland’s impressive nature as one of the reasons for the country’s inclusion on Lonely Planet’s list. “Greenland holds a large variety of Arctic adventures,” she wrote. “Most tourism activities are active as the nature and the landscape are a huge part of the beautiful world of Greenland. More specifically, what sets Greenland out from other destinations is The Big Arctic Five including Dog Sledding, Whale Watching, Meeting Pioneers, Exploring Ice and Snow and the Northern Lights. These five Arctic attractions are considered as the core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s reputation for having pristine and untainted landscapes, however, could one day be blighted in a way similar to how Canada, once a global environmental paragon, has fallen from grace with the growth of Alberta’s oil sands industry.


Mining – a new core of the Greenland adventure?

The potential rise of the mining industry in Greenland could jeopardize the “pioneer” communities and the dramatic and unindustrialized landscapes that form the “core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s inclusion in Lonely Planet’s list comes at a time when the country is still known for its glaciers, whales, and dogsleds. But soon enough, it could also be known for mining and extraction, just like Western Australia or Minas Gerais, Brazil. 

In Greenland, extraction of metals and gemstones is not entirely new. Previous efforts to mine copper, graphite, and cryolite met with varying degrees of success and failure. No industrial mining has taken place in the country since the 1990s, when the Black Angel lead-zinc-silver mine closed. Symbolizing the heady times of the mid-2000s, when commodity prices were high and the global financial crisis hadn’t yet hit, a UK-based company considered re-opening Black Angel, which still has about 10-20 years of production left in the ground. The company, however, went under in 2013, and the minerals still sit waiting for the right investor at the right time.

Fast forward to 2015, and Greenland’s mining business looks like it may be gathering momentum again. This is in part due to the Greenlandic Parliament’s hotly contested overturn of a 25-year ban on uranium mining two years ago. Greenland’s two major political parties, Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), both support the development of the minign industry, but Siumut (which currently leads the majority coalition) opposes uranium mining while IA favors it. Many in Greenland believe that mining, if it were profitable and sustainable, could pave a path towards full sovereignty from Denmark by eliminating the need for the annual 3.5 billion DKK block grant from Copenhagen (~USD $500 million). However, with a 2014 report by the Universities of Greenland and Copenhagen stressing that mining will not be enough to fuel Greenland’s economy, the government has been trying to develop other sectors like tourism (and bottled water), too.

Signaling mining’s recent headway in Greenland, Canadian mining company True North Gems announced that it has received approval to begin extracting ore and waste rock at the Aappaluttoq Ruby and Pink Sapphire deposit in southwest Greenland. Their website states, “Pure and pristine, emerging from the frozen landscape of Greenland are stunning red gems. Produced in collaboration with the local community and with steadfast devotion to the environment, we pride ourselves on what will become the first Arctic ruby mine brought into commercialization.”

It’s almost the same type of language that one might expect to read in a Lonely Planet guide book to the world’s mines.

Also in southern Greenland, Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) is planing to start a mining license application process for its Kvanefjeld rare earths-uranium project in the first quarter of 2016. GME, as Jichang Lulu reports, has a non-binding agreement with a listed arm of China Nonferrous, a state-owned Chinese mining company. The Kvanefjeld project could thus possibly supply a new rare earth elements separation plant that another subsidiary of China Nonferrous will open next year in southern China.

Early next year, GME will release the outcomes of its feasibilitysStudy. The president of an environmental non-profit, Avataq, however, isn’t holding his breath. Mikkel Myrup remarked to the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation, “There are studies that show that the environment, animals, and people around an open-pit mine are affected. So it is no use to say that we need to wait for an Environmental Impact Assessment to have an opinion on this.”

If rare earth mining goes ahead, Greenland will join another select list of countries: those that produce these metals needed for automobiles, precision-guided missiles, smart phones, and wind turbines. The 2014 list of top producers includes, in order: China (by far the heavyweight producer), the U.S., India, Australia, Russia,Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

No northern limits

If rare earth mining in southern Greenland sounds extreme, consider the Citronen Zinc-Lead Project at the northernmost tip of Greenland. The owner, Ironbark Zinc Limited, describes the location as “on the doorstep of Europe and North America” without a hint of irony (though I suppose if they are referring to Svalbard and Ellesmere Island, they might be right). The site holds an estimated 13 billion pounds of zinc, or 2.4 trillion pennies. While zinc prices have been low in recent years, a decrease of global stockpiles means that investors believe the price may soon start to recover – possibly to the point where it makes economic sense to construct what would be not only the world’s northernmost mine, but also the world’s northernmost settlement. The feasibility study is an incredible read, for it is both amazing and scary that humans are already thinking about building common rooms that “will include a small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher, a relaxing area with sofas and armchairs and an area for dining” at 83°N. IKEA should be issuing a special edition catalog of furnishings for Arctic mines any day now.


Try to imagine an open pit mine at the top of Greenland. Along with a “small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher.”

Can mining and tourism coincide?

Visit Greenland doesn’t include mining in its list of activities, but it’s possible to imagine a future in which mining and tourism are combined and both spun as “pioneering activities.”

However, a disaster at the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine in 2013 exemplifies the risks associated with this. The mine, which is right outside Salt Lake City and just so happens to be the biggest pit in the world, used to have a visitor’s center, but it was closed as the ground beneath became increasingly unstable – and fortunately before a massive landslide occurred in 2013, costing Rio Tinto an estimated $1 billion to clean up. This disaster pales in comparison with the bursting of BHP Billiton’s two tailings dams in Minas Gerais, Brazil last month, killing at least 17 people and submerging entire towns in toxic mud.

Now, to see Utah’s Kennecott open pit mine, tourists can visit a nearby 9,000-foot mountaintop to gaze down on the deep scar in the earth – excitedly described as “so large that it’s visible to astronauts in the space shuttle – almost a mile deep and nearly three miles wide!”

Maybe one day, astronauts will look down and see a massive hole carved into the icy northern tip of Greenland, illuminated by the northern lights.