How Ice Sculpting Works

By: Nathan Chandler

Frozen in Time

China’s 2013 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
China’s 2013 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
©STR/AFP/Getty Images

These days, ice is easy. You can stroll to your fridge, press a teensy button and watch as an avalanche of ice cubes rattles into your glass. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, ice wasn't nearly this convenient. It was a resource, one that took hard labor to produce.

Populations throughout history have known the value of ice. Farmers in China intentionally flooded their fields in autumn so that the water would eventually freeze. Then they used the blocks to preserve food through warmer months. More than 4,000 years ago, Inuits in North America learned to stack ice to make igloos. For people all over the world, ice meant food and shelter and survival.


In wealthy ancient cultures, ice was luxury. Royalty would ship ice at great expense and then use it for fancy juice drinks and other rare treats. In an age where there were no freezers, ice was a truly temporary but potent sign of power.

Ice wasn't just a resource. Sometimes its translucent characteristics were perfect for decorative purposes. Centuries ago, Chinese villagers would partially freeze buckets and water, slide out the resulting cylinder, cut a hole in the top and pour out the unfrozen water. Then they'd insert a candle into the center. Voila, ice lanterns.

These artistic displays were the forerunners of wintertime carnivals and festivals that revolve around ice sculpting. There are now multiple large events around the world, some of which result in entire multi-story buildings conceived in ice, illuminated with colored lights that evoke the look of a frozen fairy tale land.

In 1990, Alaska became the host of the annual World Ice Art Championships, which is now a month-long event that attracts dozens of teams and tens of thousands of visitors. Canada is home to several large ice-based events, including the Quebec City Winter Carnival, the Ice Magic festival near Lake Louise and the Deep Freeze Festival in Edmonton, where chainsaw-wielding artists attack blocks of ice with frostbitten fury.

But the biggest and most mind-blowing event is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. When complete, the grounds turn into a literal ice city, crammed with huge buildings and fanciful art, all illuminated for maximum visual effect. The village includes massive features like the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids, all quite at home in a city that averages about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 Celsius) for a high temperature in January.