How to Build an Igloo

Meet the man working in the Canadian Arctic to help preserve Inuit survival techniques.

When building an igloo for six hours in minus 54 degrees, Dylan Clark adheres to this ratio: For every second his hand is exposed to the cold, it takes 10 minutes back in the glove to warm it. “It’s hard to describe how cold it is,” he says of the northernmost Canadian Arctic.

This past spring, Clark accompanied a group of Inuit young adults into the Nunavut tundra to learn survival skills from the area’s best hunters and wisest elders, in the event they were ever stranded by broken equipment or a debilitating storm. Over nine days, they were taught first aid, firearm safety, how to clean a freshly killed caribou, and the mechanics of constructing a sturdy igloo.

The quality that makes a good igloo is the same quality that makes any good apartment: location. Joe Karetak, a community development leader, told the group that the perfect snow for building has to be hard, and without too many layers so it doesn’t crumble. A long metal rod with a small ball at the tip called a huvgut can reveal how deep and solid an area of snow is. Next, Karetak drew a circle around himself with a snow knife called a pana. To contain heat, an igloo should stay small. He then cut out blocks of snow from within the circle, and the group stacked them into a spiral, smoothing over the cracks with their gloves. Once the structure surrounded them, he again took the pana and carved a small door.


Dylan Clark in Pangnirtung, Nunavut
PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN G. CLARK

"When learning how to build igloos, it is essential to let go of cartoonish images,” Clark says. “The realities are much different; there is great nuance to the current use of igloos in the Arctic.”

Igloo building has become rare—most modern hunters just pitch a tent. “It is unusual to rely on building igloos because of the risk associated with not finding the proper snow,” Clark says. “Knowing how to build an igloo, though, could save a land user's life if they are stranded without a tent or cabin.”

Finding oneself stranded is a surprisingly common occurrence at the top of the world. The sprawling frozen landscape is a constant threat to its residents, particularly as climate change turns unforgiving weather increasingly unpredictable. Every year, there are more than 250 search-and-rescue missions in the community of 37,000 scattered people—meaning every two days, someone gets lost in the wild—more than double the rate a decade ago. Many of those stranded are victims of shoddy jerry-rigging or a lack of equipment. The community often can’t afford safety necessities, like satellite phones, or new parts for all-terrain vehicles.

Clark’s goal is to minimize the enormous cost and risk of people getting stranded while hunting and fishing. Clark, a 24-year-old master’s student working with the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University, has been organizing trainings for vulnerable communities to improve safety and working with the Canadian Forces in productive ways to assist.


Pangnirtung fjord beginning to freeze up in early October as the final ships off-load fuel and supplies for winter.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN G. CLARK

While searching for caribou, Frank Eeyeekee takes a break for tea in a cabin outside of Arviat, Nunavut.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN G. CLARK

During fall, caribou herds can be an endless sea of dots from horizon to horizon near Arviat, Nunavut. Harvesting during this period is important for food security, well-being, and cultural identity.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN G. CLARK

What makes this work even harder is that Arctic weather is changing fast. In the past 30 years, land temperatures in the north have risen nearly 2 degrees Celsius. As a result, the old ways of predicting weather are also in transition. In the past, hunters and fishermen would read the skies to prepare for an incoming storm, but now, the elders told Clark, winds come too fast and strong. The region has reported changes in wildlife movement, thinning ice, and rising sea levels.

“Inuit tradition is adapting to the environment,” Clark says. But this survival knowledge isn’t being passed down. Nunavut is one of the fastest growing Canadian regions, a place where, as one elder lamented, kids are raising kids. Nunavut has the country’s highest teenage pregnancy rate: 24 percent, compared to a national average of 5 percent. Nearly 60 percent of the region’s population is under 25.

“Elders told me again and again the real learning happens when you’re out on the land,” Clark says. Flexing his paramedic training and an academic background in environmental science, he decided to conduct the training in a wild place. “There is mental health, identity, and self-being tied to being out on the water or the tundra. Not necessarily harvesting—just being out there.”


The aurora borealis meanders across the sky, lighting up Pangnirtung fjord and some bobbing icebergs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN G. CLARK

Clark thinks that the Inuit leadership will continue to adapt its policies to physical changes. Leaders are working to integrate the programs into formal education—an alternative to the tradition of passing down knowledge. In June, Clark accompanied the Canadian Armed Forces during a search-and-rescue training mission to discuss prevention and response.

“Unfortunately people in the northern communities are going to see these big climate change impacts, and there’s not a lot they can do to mitigate them,” he says. Research, education, and indigenous knowledge are “the opportunities we have to adapt to climate change.”

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