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What is an Igloo?

An igloo is a dome-shaped shelter, ingeniously constructed from blocks of compressed snow by the Inuit people. Its design capitalizes on snow's insulating properties, providing warmth and protection in harsh Arctic climates. Intrigued by how these icy structures can keep you cozy in sub-zero temperatures? Discover the science behind igloo construction and its cultural significance as we explore further.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An igloo is a structure built from blocks of compressed snow which are carefully shaved and placed to fit in optimal positions. Igloos are closely associated with Inuit culture, although many Native North American peoples built igloos, some of which were quite large and elaborate. Examples of igloos can still be seen in the far reaches of North America today, and people in snowy regions sometimes enjoy building models of these interesting structures in the winter. An igloo may also be referred to as a snowhouse.

A classical igloo is dome-shaped, with the blocks of ice being built up in a spiral. The roof has a small hole for ventilation, and the entrance is dug into the snow so that it is lower than the igloo itself. This creates a cold trap, ensuring that the ambient temperature inside the igloo stays relatively warm. In fact, some igloos get quite temperate inside, thanks to body heat and the use of heated stones to raise the interior temperature.

Igloos may be built as temporary structures for the use of hunters.
Igloos may be built as temporary structures for the use of hunters.

The construction process involved in making an igloo is rather remarkable. The blocks are cut from snow which has been heavily compacted, ensuring that they will be strong, and the structure is built without the use of mortar or supports. Once the igloo is finished, the people inside actually contribute to its strength and stability, because heat causes the inside blocks to start melting, while the cold refreezes the melted water, creating a smooth sheet of ice which further insulates the igloo.

Igloos are built from blocks of compressed snow.
Igloos are built from blocks of compressed snow.

A basic igloo stays warmer than the outside because snow is an excellent insulator, and some Native North Americans also added skins and furs to the lining of their igloos to make them especially warm. When seated on the raised sleeping platform in the back of the igloo, people would have been able to take advantage of one of the warmest spots in the structure. Even with the airhole for ventilation, an igloo can get pretty stuffy inside, but considering the ambient temperatures outside, most people think that the stuffiness is worth it.

Some igloos are built as temporary structures for the use of hunters and travelers, and they tend to be smaller and less elaborate than permanent igloos. A permanent igloo is much larger, designed to accommodate a crowd and to connect with other igloos, including temporary structures built for festivals and special events. Often, several families or groups shared the same igloo, with some permanent igloos having divided rooms to facilitate sharing of the space.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an igloo and what is its primary purpose?

An igloo, derived from the Inuit word "iglu," which means "house," is a dome-shaped shelter made from blocks of snow, specifically constructed for temporary shelter in the polar regions. Its primary purpose is to provide warmth and protection from the harsh, cold climate. The snow acts as an insulator, trapping body heat inside, which can raise the interior temperature significantly above the outside temperature, sometimes up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) warmer.

How are igloos constructed?

Igloos are constructed using compacted snow that is cut into large, block-like shapes. Builders start by creating a circular base and then stacking the snow blocks in a spiral pattern, each layer leaning inward to form a self-supporting dome. A small entrance tunnel is added, which traps cold air and prevents it from entering the main dome. The blocks are carefully shaped and smoothed to fit tightly together, minimizing air leaks and maximizing structural stability.

Can igloos be used for long-term living?

Traditionally, igloos were not intended for long-term living but rather as temporary shelters for hunters or travelers. However, some Inuit families would maintain semi-permanent igloo villages during the winter months. Modern igloos are primarily used for emergency shelters or cultural demonstrations, as most Inuit people now live in permanent homes built with modern materials.

What are the ideal conditions for building an igloo?

The ideal conditions for building an igloo require the presence of compact, dry snow that is easy to cut and shape. This type of snow typically forms when temperatures are just below freezing, allowing the snowflakes to bond together but not melt. The temperature should be cold enough to ensure the snow doesn't melt during construction but not so cold that the snow becomes brittle and difficult to work with.

How long can an igloo last?

The lifespan of an igloo depends on the weather conditions and the quality of its construction. In ideal cold conditions, an igloo can last for several weeks or even months. However, if the temperature rises above freezing, the igloo will begin to melt and lose its structural integrity. Continuous maintenance, such as patching and re-smoothing the walls, can extend an igloo's usability.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon314095

I was wondering the same. Why can't it be square? I later realized that a square roof will never be able to stand, that it will collapse because there is nothing to support it. But a dome shaped roof is well supported because ice blocks are kept at a certain angle so that all blocks support themselves. I hope this answers your question.

anon25162

Im just wondering. why is the shape of an igloo a dome shaped? Why not square??!

sevenseas

I suppose some of the coolers are named igloo to conjure the effect of coldness.

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    • Igloos may be built as temporary structures for the use of hunters.
      By: Andrew Buckin
      Igloos may be built as temporary structures for the use of hunters.
    • Igloos are built from blocks of compressed snow.
      By: mario beauregard
      Igloos are built from blocks of compressed snow.