The practice of transforming ice into something beautiful has been around for thousands of years, and wows travellers today with impressive sculpting competitions around the world.

The World Ice Arts Championships begin in Fairbanks, Alaska on 26 February this year. Like the World Cup of the ice-sculpting world, the competition attracts artists from across the globe. Last year, competitors represented countries ranging from Japan and Russia to Portugal, the United States and the Philippines.

For an idea of just how detailed, complex and impressive these sculptures are, look no further than last year’s winner in the “multi-block” (that is, carved from multiple blocks of ice) competition, titled Prickly Reception, crafted by a Japanese team led by renowned sculptor Junichi Nakamura (who won the gold medal for ice carving at the 1998 Winter Olympics). Nakamura is known in the ice world for taking risks with his pieces, and Prickly Reception was no exception, with the ice for the porcupine quills so thin it boggles the mind that they didn’t break off during the competition. Other sculptures of his have not been so lucky, with one entry in 2005 collapsing during the final stages of sculpting.

Artists use such tools as chainsaws, handsaws, hairdryers, irons and chisels to carve the ice, usually working in ultra-cold environments such as large walk-in freezers to guard against melting.  A fascinating Q&A, hosted by New Orleans-based sculptor Dawson List, offers insight into how professional ice sculpting competitions are judged, where the ice for sculptures comes from and why it isn’t simply done by machine.

But from outside the industry, it’s easy to wonder where this idea of transforming ice into something beautiful came from. 

The exact origins of ice sculpting are murky, though we do know that the practice has been around for a very long time. Early Inuits travelling across present-day Alaska, Canada and Greenland started building ice and snow houses for shelter – commonly known today as igloos – around 4,000 years ago. The uses and benefits of ice as a resource eventually came to be known all over the world. As described by ice sculptor Joseph Amendola in his book Ice Carving Made Easy, written records dating back to 600 BC reveal that in the highlands of northwest China, farmers would flood their fields with water, wait for it to freeze, harvest blocks of ice and then store them in insulated facilities to help preserve perishables like seafood. And, according to Amendola, in both Ancient Rome and India, the wealthy began eating and drinking ice mixed with fruit juices as a lavish dessert – a precursor to ice cream and sorbet.

Along the way, the moulding and sculpting of ice into different shapes became more sophisticated, incorporating the use of salt and tools. In the 1600s, for instance, fishermen in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang started sculpting lanterns from ice – freezing water inside buckets, removing the buckets and inserting candles. Today in Heilongjiang, the capital, Harbin, hosts the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, where the delicately-crafted ice lanterns are a major highlight.

In Russia, around 1739, empress Anna Ivanovna ordered the construction of a house made of ice from the river Neva for special events – perhaps the first known “ice palace” in the world, depicted here in this 1878 oil painting by artist Valery Ivanovich Jacobi.

Today, ice sculpting is often incorporated into the culinary arts, with many sculptors learning the craft in culinary schools. Ice sculptures are typically used in entertaining, both as decorative statues and as functional display pieces, and, ice sculpting often goes hand in hand with fruit and vegetable carving. This connection also has historic roots -- during the Middle Ages, extravagant meals or banquets hosted by the wealthy often featured sculptures made from edible ingredients like pastry dough, sugar and ice, according to the book Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance.

Today, cities around the world host ice arts events. Ice sculpting has even made its way into the Olympics – not as a sport, but as a Cultural Olympiad event, the first at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission. Just last week (from 11 January to 13 January), Canary Wharf, London hosted the London Ice Sculpting Festival. (This slideshow of the event shows the artists in action.) Here are a few upcoming ice sculpting events around the world worth checking out this season:

  • Ice Festival, Parnu, Estonia – 16 February through 24 February