By Adam Perkinson
Imagine this — It’s the middle of Winter in Alaska or Antarctica. There’s a bad blizzard whirling outside, and an Eskimo is huddled up in a…
Chances are, you imagined the eskimo with an igloo. But why? Why is the igloo seemingly the universal symbol for cold, even though there’s hardly anywhere in the continental United States where you could feasibly build one?
To start, I found out what exactly igloos are. As it turns out, they’re not actually built by the Eskimos, nor were they built in Alaska or Antarctica. They were traditionally built by people living in Canada’s Central Arctic and Greenland’s Thule areas respectively. Additionally, they’re surprisingly good insulators — which is why they were commonly built by people living in extremely cold climates. For example, the outside temperature could be as low as -50 °F, but it could be as warm as 60 °F inside an igloo warmed only by body heat. With a fire, it could be as warm as your house! This is because of the way igloos are constructed. While the primary component is ice (which is where the stereotypical igloo design comes from), the ice was also packed tight with snow, which — believe it or not — is where the most heat is saved. Snow is 10% frozen water and 90% air, and it’s the air that creates pockets where heat can’t escape and the cold can’t get in.
That begs another question though: How do fires not melt the ice and snow? Well, because it’s too cold to. Seriously. As long as the cold air can suck the heat away from the ice, the fire can’t melt it, which is why the igloos I always tried to build as a kid never worked — it was simply too warm, even if I was freezing my butt off. It also didn’t help that North Carolina gets very wet snow, which makes it a lot harder to air pockets to form, effectively ruining any insulatory properties.
Since I was never able to truly experience an igloo, I can’t speak from experience on what living in one is like. So I turned to YouTube, where videos of outdoor camping tend to do very well for whatever reason. Surprisingly, there aren’t many videos online of people legitimately living in igloos. As it turns out, people don’t really live in igloos anymore. If I had to guess, the death of the igloo is directly correlated with the advent of central heating. That, and the fact that to properly build one, it’s very difficult. For example, a smallish one that could comfortably shelter a family of 4 could take up to 3 hours for 2 people to put together.
However, that is not to say the igloo is antiquated. While most Inuit people have transitioned to regular old houses, igloos are still built on hunting trips in place of thin, poorly-insulated tents. Are they better than houses? Heck no, but they’re a whole lot better than freezing to death.