The igloo is a small house made of snow, perfectly suited to a cold, arctic environment where building materials such as wood, stone and brick are not available. For centuries, the Inuit people used igloos as temporary houses. Although a house made of snow might seem too cold to be comfortable, igloos actually act like a large snow blanket, trapping body heat. An igloo can reach temperatures of up to 50 degrees inside.
Geography And People
Until the last century, igloos were built by native people of northern Canada and Russia. Today, these parts of Canada are called Labrador, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. Igloos were also built by people in northern Alaska. For each of these locations, the people had a different name. “Inuit” means “the people” in the Inuktitut language of northern Canada. The term “Eskimo,” which means “those who eat their food raw,” was used by some people to describe these northern people, who often ate raw fish and meat when cooking fuel was not available.
Tundra is land where it is too cold for trees to grow. Because trees cannot grow on this land, which is frozen solid for all but a few months of the year, lumber is in very short supply. Farming is also impossible in the frozen ground, although some grasses and mosses do grow in the summer months. As a result, the Inuit people had to travel from season to season, following their animal food sources. In the winter months, they used ice-fishing to sustain themselves, which meant that they needed temporary winter housing: igloos.
Igloo Building Method
Igloos are constructed out of large snow blocks. The blocks are arranged in a large circle, and then a slightly smaller circle of blocks is laid on top, followed by a still smaller circle, and so on. The final result of the building process is a dome, which is a very strong structure–a finished igloo can support the weight of a man standing on the roof. As the interior of the igloo heats up from body heat and seal-oil lamps, the blocks slowly melt and then refreeze, transforming the igloo into an even stronger house of ice.
The primary use for an igloo was to serve as the winter camp for a group of traveling families. Some igloos would house only a single hunter or a small group of hunters or fishermen, while larger igloos could serve as community meeting centers–or even wrestling halls. During the summer, the people would travel to a summer camp, and live in tents made of animal skins. However, an igloo actually provides much better insulation than an animal-skin tent, and so it works better for cold-weather camping.
After World War II, the Inuit way of life greatly changed. The outside world became much more interested in the Arctic, and set up military bases and radar stations in the region. All of the travel into the tundra meant that more permanent building materials and jobs were available, and so few Inuit still use igloos today. However, other parts of the Inuit culture, including mythology, storytelling, and the use of native languages continue to thrive in the tundra.
- igloo image by Vladislav Gajic from Fotolia.com