TIDBITS Blog Archives

Welcome to the Igloo: Warmer Than You Might Think

Note: In the Inuit language, “igloo” can refer to any sort of house, not just a winter snow house. However, in English—and other languages—an igloo specifically means a snow house, particularly the type constructed by the Inuit peoples of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska; this is what I mean by “igloo” in this post.

In “Cold Welcome,” Cody discovers, in a most unlikely place, the elusive warmth that has evaded him for so long. The wintry igloo he builds with his long-forgotten nephew becomes a catalyst in rediscovering precious familial connections. Though an igloo is an ice-cold snow house on the outside, the interior can be significantly warmer—both physically and emotionally. Let’s take a look at this unique dwelling, which has withstood the test of time in some of the most forbidding places on the planet.


The interior of an igloo stays warmer than the outside thanks to three mechanisms: radiation, convection, and insulation. In the process of radiation, the people inside radiate heat from their bodies, acting as an internal heat source within the igloo. Next, this warm air, which is a fluid, gradually moves around the igloo by convection, circulating warmer air upward and cooler air downward, helping distribute the heat.

Then there’s insulation. Ice’s thermal conductivity, like that of air, is low; it stops heat from being transferred into the surroundings. The snow’s ice and still air trapped within are highly effective insulators, creating a barrier between the cold outside and the relatively warm interior.

Fresh snow is up to 95 percent trapped air. Ice, on the other hand, is very dense and is an excellent wind breaker. Since the super-dense ice is too heavy to lift to construct the igloo, the intrepid igloo builder uses snow that hits the sweet spot: dense, but not too dense. So the igloo blocks that are chosen have more air pockets (i.e., air trapped among tiny crystals) than a solid block of ice. Since the air cannot easily circulate inside this snow, heat gets trapped inside the igloo.

When snowflakes fall onto the roof of an igloo, they melt and refreeze, providing a replacement layer of insulation and transforming the snow blocks into an icy, well-fortified, domed refuge. This dome’s cross section is a catenary arch, which is a highly stable shape. Now the igloo will even withstand a feisty polar bear who fancies it as his trampoline!

The interior of an igloo is a quiet, calming environment; snow is a natural insulator of sound and heat. In my story, Cody and Logan are able to connect inside the igloo free of outside distractions. Though still cold, inside it is significantly warmer than it is outside. Hot cocoa and colorful stories help to keep them cozy. And, since they have carved the igloo in multiple layers, they can hang out on the upper sleeping platform, as warm air rises.

Inside the igloo, the snow does melt somewhat, but the water doesn’t drip because the dome’s roof is curved. Instead, it gradually soaks into the blocks. Later, once summertime brings warmer temperatures, the igloo will melt away.

But warm memories from that time in their igloo will remain with Cody and Logan long after the snow has melted.


  1. “How an Igloo Keeps You Warm,” YouTube video with Joe Hanson, c. January, 2017
  2. Scott Welch on Quora, answers “People who’ve built and slept in igloos, what’s it actually like?” updated, 2021
  3. “Why an Igloo Doesn’t Melt Inside,” in Scientific Humans, copyright 2023
  4. Transun, “How Does an Igloo Work?”

Dolley’s Precious Legacy

In my story, “A Gift from James,” an astonishing discovery of a centuries-old treasure gives hope to a struggling young couple. In the process, they are introduced to their rich heritage and their connection with President James and Dolley Madison. Though the gift is bequeathed by James, it is protected for centuries by Dolley’s reticule. Let’s take a look at the extraordinary gift that is discovered, at Dolley’s outstanding legacy, and at the coins minted many decades later in her honor.

In “A Gift from James,” the 1822 Capped Bust Gold $5 Half Eagle Coin is kept safe for nearly two centuries, sheltered in Dolley Madison’s soft cotton reticule. This rare coin was actually last bought for 8.4 million dollars, somewhat less than what my fictional characters earn from its sale. Nonetheless, its sale in March 2021 set a record as it became the most valuable coin ever made by the United States Mint. Though nearly 18,000 of these iconic coins were minted at the time, the vast majority were lost to posterity or melted for their gold content. They soon became so scarce that it became almost impossible to find any. Today, two of these coins are housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; only one is known to be in private hands, the celebrated coin of the March auction. The attraction of the coin has transcended period and generation, as has the allure of America’s fabled hostess and heroine, First Lady Dolley Madison.

Dolley was the wife of James Madison, the fourth US president, father of the Constitution and author of the Bill of Rights. This celebrated White House hostess, with her unifying personality, was known as the first presidential wife to be referred to as First Lady; President Zachary Taylor recognized her as such in his tribute at her 1849 funeral. Unlike her predecessors, who kept political rivals from meeting each other at the presidential residence, Dolley initiated a new approach. She invited everyone to the same dinners, encouraging rivaling politicians to get along with one another. The most popular of the early First Ladies, Dolley was widely regarded as witty, pretty, and a vivacious hostess. She was also esteemed as the heroine who saved the 1796 Gilbert Stuart portrait of General George Washington. During the War of 1812, just before the British set the White House on fire in the summer of 1814, Dolley had to quickly evacuate the White House. Yet she had the presence of mind to remember the Washington portrait. She reportedly ordered that the portrait be turned over to a pair of visitors from New York for safekeeping. Thanks to Dolley’s foresight, this famous portrait still graces the White House.

Dolley Madison Commemorative Silver Dollar

In 1999, as per an act of Congress, the United States Mint made the first coin to commemorate the spouse of a US president. This is the Dolley Madison Commemorative Silver Dollar, designed by Tiffany & Co., honoring her unique role in America’s national history. Dolley set the tone for America’s First Ladies, largely defining their special role in American life. Mrs. Madison’s grace, style, and wit were widely appreciated, as she served as White House hostess for sixteen years (including during the presidency of the widowed Thomas Jefferson). She presided over the first Inaugural Ball in 1809, and is believed to have inaugurated other White House traditions.

In addition to the commemorative silver dollar, the Dolley Madison First Spouse $10 Gold Coin was minted in 2007. First Lady Dolley Madison’s place in US history is a durable gift for ensuing generations.

In “A Gift from James,” Elizabeth brings a special gift of her own for the couple’s new daughter, an antique porcelain Dolley Madison doll. It is beautiful and valuable. Yet it is significantly more precious to the young family: They will forever appreciate Dolley as the distant relative whose foresight and affection kept their treasure safe, thus paving the way toward the safety of their own cherished daughter.


  1. “Numismatics”: Wikipedia
  2. Ryan F. Warlick, “Dolley Madison and Anecdotes in Early Twentieth Century Textbooks”: Thesis presented at Clemson University, December, 2017
  3. “The History of U.S. Circulating Coins”: United States Mint
  4. “The Allure of the 1822 Capped Bust Half Eagle” by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez, in PCGS, April 22, 2021
  5. “Dolley Madison Commemorative Silver Dollar”: United States Mint, 1999