How to build an igloo

The native peoples of the frozen northlands of Canada and Greenland have dozens of words to describe snow and one of the most important is the type of snow suitable for building an igloo. The word igloo is derived from the Inuit word “igdlu,” meaning “house.” Igloos aren’t as prevalent as they once were, having been replaced by woods and metals introduced by Western interlopers.

Still, the knowledge of how to construct an igloo for temporary shelter can mean the difference between life and death when bad weather strikes on a hunt away from home or for a shelter of several rooms for those without access to modern building materials.

The only tools required to build an igloo are a snow spade and a saw. In traditional times these implements would have been fashioned from bone. As with all real estate, location is all important in building an igloo. The igloo building site must be placed on a field of hard snow suitable for obtaining solid snow blocks. Begin by scraping and clearing a circle between 10 and fifteen feet in diameter, suitable for a shelter for two to three people.

The cutting of snow blocks now begins in earnest. Cut large blocks for the base, perhaps two feet by four feet. The blocks should be solid enough that they can be carried without breaking. The blocks are placed along the perimeter of your circle. The edges of the blocks should be shaped and angled towards the center.

Progressively smaller snow blocks are added as the igloo grows. The weight of the blocks support one another and contribute to the stability of the structure. Cracks between the blocks are stuffed with snow as the walls build. Snow that piles up inside the igloo during the construction process should be cleared away before the snow dome closes as its removal is easier than trying to shovel it out the entrance. After the final block is wedged into the top from the inside, the snow dome is complete. A livable igloo can be built in just a few hours.

The smaller cracks between the blocks can be smoothed over but two or three cracks should be left unfilled to provide adequate ventilation. The entrance is a tunnel dug beneath the igloo floor but no so large as to admit a curious polar bear. The entrance way can be dug with a bend to lessen the chances of blowing snow piling up in the igloo.

Once the igloo is sealed a fire or lamp is ignited inside. The heat begins to melt the interior of the snow blocks which quickly congeals into ice in the cold air. As this pattern of freezing from the inside out repeats itself for a few days the igloo transforms from a snow house into an ice house of tremendous stability. A full-grown man can stand on an igloo without it collapsing and a properly-built igloo can withstand hurricane force winds on the open snow.

Of course, even an igloo cannot withstand the summer Arctic thaw. Each year, in areas where four or five-room igloos are permanent shelters, the snow domes need to be rebuilt every winter.

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