How To Make Ice in the Desert

A piece of ice (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 January 2021

The desert dips below freezing on winter nights but if you want ice in the summer, how do you get it? This is a story of human innovation using natural processes.

In the 17th century BCE the Persians (Iranians) figured out how to make ice in the desert and store it through long hot summers. They used this method for 3,600+ years until electric refrigeration replaced it in the 20th century.

Though water is scarce in Iran, the method works well because the air is so dry. The process requires many steps: deliver water, make ice, store ice and keep it cool.

Deliver water to the ice-making location: The Persians built underground water channels called qanats to deliver water from uphill wells to the downhill population. Water in the qanat does not evaporate in the sun and stays cooler because it’s underground.

Cross section of Persian underground water channel called qanat (diagram from Wikimedia Commons )

Make ice: To make ice the Persians built plaza-like ponds, shaded by a high wall, where the shallow water froze on winter nights. Collecting the ice before sunrise, they stored it in the ice house (dome in the background). Here are two photos of the same ice plaza no longer in use. People give it a sense of scale.

Store the ice: The ice house, called a yakhchal, stored ice underground, where conditions are naturally cooler, and protected it with an insulated dome. The hole at the top of the dome allowed hot air to escape.

Ice house in Iran, exterior (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Ice house in Iran, interior top of the dome (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Keep the ice cool: The ice was kept cool using natural ventilation to draw in cold air and remove hot air. Windcatcher towers in some towns were quite ornate.

Here’s a video that puts it all together.

Very cool!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

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