Thursday, January 17, 2013


NOAA photo of nearly complete, medium-sized igloo
At this time of year, which is winter, you just might find yourself thinking about igloos.  And maybe you are even thinking about building one in your back yard, if there is actually some snow there.  But if you are having a Severe Drought, like we have in Missouri, you will probably need to make your igloo out of straw bales or adobe bricks!

Inuit village of Oopungnewing,
near Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island, 1865
The people who are famous for building igloos are called the Inuit, and they live in cold, frozen places where you wonder why anybody in their right mind would want to live there.  But the Inuit have figured out how to survive in the Arctic, and they have been there for many hundreds of years.  There are various groups of Inuit people, but the ones who mostly built igloos were the ones in Canada's Central Arctic and those in the Thule area of Greenland.

Igloo on Atlin Lake, BC
Photo by Juergen Weiss
Some people think the Inuit only live in igloos, but this is not true.  They mostly live in regular houses, the same as anybody else, especially nowadays.  But they used to build igloos whenever they went out hunting, and sometimes they still do this.  The reason they have to go out hunting in the middle of the winter is because hardly any plants grow in the Arctic, so the diet of the Inuit is almost all meat.

The Inuit word for igloo is iglu, which means "snowhouse."  There are three sizes of igloos.  The smallest was just used for one or two nights during a hunting trip.  It was often built on open sea ice.

The view from inside an igloo
Medium-sized igloos were semi-permanent family homes.  There was usually a single room where one or two families lived.  A lot of times, several of these igloos were built near each other, which made a little Inuit village.

The biggest igloos were built in groups of two.  One building was used for special occasions such as feasts or traditional dances.  The other igloo was made to live in.  It might have as many as five rooms, and 20 people would live in it.  The "rooms" of a large igloo were smaller igloos that were connected to the big one by tunnels.

To build an igloo, you have to have the kind of snow that can be cut into blocks and stacked.  Snow like this happens when the wind blows it really hard and compacts it.  Usually, the hole left where the blocks of snow have been cut out is used as the inside of the shelter.  The blocks are then stacked in a circle around the dugout part, with each round of blocks getting smaller.  The blocks lean against each other to make the domed roof.  A tunnel leads into the igloo, with an animal skin or tarp as a door flap.  The tunnel keeps cold air from blowing into the igloo.  You can put a clear block or two of ice in the roof to let light in.

If you want to build your own igloo, you can get some basic instructions here:

And see a short video here:

Igloo interior, Alaska, 1916,
U.S. Library of Congress
Inside the igloo, beds are made on ice shelves or scaffolds, and lined with caribou furs.  It's best to put your bed up high because heat rises.  Body heat will help make the igloo warm, and so will lamps and stoves.  Oh, and you need a small vent hole or two so you won't get carbon monoxide poisoning.

A building inspector checking out an igloo
After a day or two, ice forms on the inside of the igloo, and also on the outside because of little thawing and freezing in the sunshine.  The ice helps insulate the igloo even more, which is good.  Some Inuit groups also use animal skins to line the walls and ceiling.  This can help raise the temperature inside the igloo to anywhere between 36ºF and 65ºF.

The Igloo Hotel in Cantwell, AK
This is the only kind of igloo I would even consider
sleeping in, but sadly, it seems to be closed!
Even if the only thing you have inside your igloo is an oil lamp and some body heat, experts say the temperature will be about 40º warmer than the outside temperature.  So if it's -40ºF outside, you can enjoy a nice, warm temperature of 0ºF inside.  Which, if you want my opinion, is still much, much, much too cold for any person or dog to be out in!  So I have made a vow never to go to the Arctic or sleep in an igloo.  I plan to stay right here in Missouri where we have a lovely furnace and not enough snow to even tempt us to think about building an igloo!

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