Community of igloos (Illustration from Charles Francis Hall's Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux, 1865)
An Inuk inside an igloo, early-20th century.

An igloo (Inuit languages: iglu,[1] Inuktitut syllabics ᐃᒡᓗ [iɣˈlu] (plural: igluit ᐃᒡᓗᐃᑦ [iɣluˈit])), also known as a snow house or snow hut, is a type of shelter built of suitable snow.

Although igloos are often associated with all Inuit, they were traditionally used only by the people of Canada's Central Arctic and the Qaanaaq area of Greenland. Other Inuit tended to use snow to insulate their houses, which were constructed from whalebone and hides. Snow is used because the air pockets trapped in it make it an insulator. On the outside, temperatures may be as low as −45 °C (−49 °F), but on the inside, the temperature may range from −7 to 16 °C (19 to 61 °F) when warmed by body heat alone.[2]


Inuit building an igloo (November 1924)

The Inuit language word iglu (plural igluit) can be used for a house or home built of any material,[1] and is not restricted exclusively to snowhouses (called specifically igluvijaq, plural igluvijait), but includes traditional tents, sod houses, homes constructed of driftwood and modern buildings.[3][4]

Several dialects throughout the Canadian Arctic (Siglitun, Inuinnaqtun, Natsilingmiutut, Kivalliq, North Baffin) use iglu for all buildings, including snowhouses, and it is the term used by the Government of Nunavut.[1][5][6] An exception to this is the dialect used in the Igloolik region. Iglu is used for other buildings, while igluvijaq,[7] (plural igluvijait, Inuktitut syllabics: ᐃᒡᓗᕕᔭᖅ) is specifically used for a snowhouse. Outside Inuit culture, however, igloo refers exclusively to shelters constructed from blocks of compacted snow, generally in the form of a dome.


There are three traditional types of igloos, all of different sizes and used for different purposes.[8]

  • The smallest are constructed as temporary shelters, usually only used for one or two nights so they are easier to build. On rare occasions these are built and used during hunting trips, often on open sea ice.[9]
  • Intermediate-sized igloos were for semi-permanent, family dwelling. This was usually a single room dwelling that housed one or two families. Often there were several of these in a small area, which formed an Inuit village.
  • The largest igloos were normally built in groups of two. One of the buildings was a temporary structure built for special occasions, the other built nearby for living. These might have had up to five rooms and housed up to 20 people. A large igloo might have been constructed from several smaller igloos attached by their tunnels, giving common access to the outside. These were used to hold community feasts and traditional dances.


Snow igloos are not spherical, but are built in a catenary curve, a shape more closely resembling a paraboloid. Using this shape, the stresses of snow as it ages and compresses are less likely to cause it to buckle because in an inverted paraboloid or catenoid the pressures are nearer to being exclusively compressive.[10]

The individual snow bricks start out 4-sided and being cut out of the ground with saws and machete-like blades, but are then often cut into 5 or 6-sided shapes to increase structural interlocking,[11] similar to the stones used in the Inca Empire.

Igloos gradually become shorter with time due to the compressive creep of the snow.[10]

Building methods[edit]

The snow used to build an igloo must have enough structural strength to be cut and stacked appropriately. The best snow to use for this purpose is snow which has been blown by wind, which can serve to compact and interlock the ice crystals; snow that has settled gently to the ground in still weather is not useful. The hole left in the snow where the blocks are cut is usually used as the lower half of the shelter.[12]

Snow's insulating properties enable the inside of the igloo to remain relatively warm. In some cases, a single block of clear freshwater ice is inserted to allow light into the igloo. Igloos used as winter shelters had beds made of loose snow, skins, and caribou furs.[12] Sometimes, a short tunnel is constructed at the entrance, to reduce wind and heat loss when the door is opened. Animal skins or a snow block can be used as a door.

Architecturally, the igloo is unique in that it is a dome that can be raised out of independent blocks leaning on each other and polished to fit without an additional supporting structure during construction. An igloo that is built correctly will support the weight of a person standing on the roof.

Traditionally, an igloo might be deliberately consolidated immediately after construction[13] by making a large flame with a kudlik (qulliq, stone lamp), briefly making the interior very hot, which causes the walls to melt slightly and settle.[12] Body heat is also adequate, although slower. This melting and refreezing builds up a layer of ice that contributes to the strength of the igloo.[14]

The sleeping platform is a raised area. Because warmer air rises and cooler air settles, the entrance area acts as a cold trap whereas the sleeping area will hold whatever heat is generated by a stove, lamp, body heat, or other device.

The Central Inuit, especially those around the Davis Strait, lined the living area with skin, which could increase the temperature within from around 2 °C (36 °F) to 10–20 °C (50–68 °F).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Iglu". Asuilaak Living Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2019-08-27. Retrieved 2011-07-19.
  2. ^ "How Warm is an Igloo?, BEE453 Spring 2003 (PDF)" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2012-04-17. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  3. ^ "The Mackenzie Inuit Winter House" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2012-04-01. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  4. ^ "Reconstructing traditional Inuit house forms using three-dimensional interactive computer modelling" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2009-03-26. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  5. ^ "About the Flag and Coat of Arms". Gov.nu.ca. 1999-04-01. Archived from the original on 2013-03-07. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  6. ^ Inuinnaqtun English Dictionary. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut: Nunavut Arctic College, 1996.
  7. ^ "Igluvijaq". Asuilaak Living Dictionary. Retrieved 2011-06-29.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Simon, Kathryn. "The science of igloos". Retrieved January 29, 2016.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ A Lost Art in the Arctic: Igloo Making
  10. ^ a b Handy, Richard L. (Dec 1973). "The Igloo and the Natural Bridge as Ultimate Structures" (PDF). Arctic. Arctic Institute of North America. 26 (4): 276–277. doi:10.14430/arctic2926. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-03-04.
  11. ^ kitikmeotheritage (2012-07-25), Building An Igloo, archived from the original on 2021-12-11, retrieved 2019-07-05
  12. ^ a b c Roald Amundsen (1908). "Chapter 8". The North West Passage, being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship "Gyöa" 1903-1907. Vol. 2. London, Constable. p. 1-14. (a Norwegian observer's account of the building a family's winter igloo, not a short-term hunting one, by Atikleura and Nalungia, Netsilik Inuit)
  13. ^ Amundsen, Roald (1908). "3". The North West Passage, being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship "Gyöa" 1903-1907;. Vol. 1. London, Constable. p. 145. We were inexperienced at that time, and did not know that the hut ought to be heated inside in order to consolidate it.
  14. ^ "What house-builders can learn from igloos, 2008, Dan Cruickshank, BBC". BBC News. 2008-04-02. Archived from the original on 2009-03-11. Retrieved 2012-07-10.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]