“In order for us to be able to continue mining iron ore, up until 2035, everything on top of the mines must be moved to safety. Everything.”

The Arctic mining town of Kiruna, Sweden has a mythical allure to it. The community of 18,000 people built its fortunes on a massive iron ore body that erupted 1.6 billion years ago from two kilometers below the Earth’s crust, likely due to volcanic activity. The revenues generated by excavating over a billion and a half tons of iron ore over 100 years of mining have come at a hefty price. The soil is sinking beneath the town’s foundations, so in 2004, the municipality decided to relocate three kilometers to the east, brick by brick. As the mine’s operator, LKAB, explains on its website, “In order for us to be able to continue mining iron ore, up until 2035, everything on top of the mines must be moved to safety. Everything.”

LKAB will be footing the entire bill at the cost of more than $1 billion. Surveys have shown that most town residents support the relocation, or at the very least, accept that it needs to be done. If the relocation didn’t happen, mining wouldn’t be able to continue – and the mine, the world’s deepest underground iron ore mine, is the town’s lifeblood.

New apartment buildings that LKAB is building as part of the urban relocation effort. The sign says, “Here LKAB is building a new living area.”

The continuation of iron mining is important for more than just Kiruna, too. LKAB provides some 90% of Europe’s iron ore, most of which goes into manufacturing steel – a commodity that is fundamental to modern society.

This summer, representing an important step in the relocation process, the town’s iconic clock tower was taken down and then reassembled in the new town square. During my visit to Kiruna this past August, as the days were getting shorter and wetter, I saw the frame of the re-erected clock tower from a distance. Getting much closer wasn’t an option, since the to-be town square is currently a construction zone.

Meanwhile, back in the “original” town square, well-coiffed women pushed their prams and dusty backpackers returning from the long-distance Kungsleden trek sat down for well-earned coffee and cake at one of the many quaint cafés. I sat down at one such restaurant for a cloudberry latte and cinnamon roll, served on a pastel pink tray. Even as the city slowly moves eastward, daily life continues as usual in Kiruna.

Cranes (and a rainbow) hover over Kiruna’s future town square.
Kiruna’s original town square.

Burrowing into the Earth’s rusty bowels

Easier than visiting the future town square was getting down deep into the iron ore mine, which provided a welcome shelter from relentless rain. From my temporary digs at the Husky Lodge, home to dozens of frisky dogs yearning for snow (they have to settle for training by ATV in summer), it was a short drive to LKAB’s facilities. Most of the mine site appeared as would be expected: piles of rock, eerily still tailings ponds, and a creepy old elevator shaft. Yet there was also an incongruously tall building whose presence was even more jarring than the huge piles of waste rock. LKAB’s on-site office building was supposedly designed to resemble the United Nations building in New York.

The old elevator shaft that used to take workers down into the mine, when the transportation levels were closer to the surface.

Once we drove underground, all the noise on the landscape disappeared. My field of vision became limited to the confines of a dark tunnel burrowing deep into the iron-rich earth. If you were to drive on the road down to its current terminus 1,365 meters below the surface, it would take about an hour. At the end, you’d reach the current haulage level, where miners work to extract iron by drilling and blasting the overhanging ore body each night sometime after 1:00 am so as not to wake the city with its rumbles and reverberations.

Over the course of the mine’s underground operations, which commenced in 1952, seven haulage levels have been constructed. Each one requires a significant investment, as new ore passes, shafts, tunnels, train sets, amenities for the workers have to be built (including meeting rooms, restaurant, and parking spaces, if you can believe it). The current haulage level opened last year and should allow production to continue until 2033.

At the current haulage level, as soon as ore crumbles down following a blast, miners work to spray the ceiling with cement to prevent caving. Iron ore is then dumped onto an unmanned train that delivers it to a vertical shaft, where it is raised to the surface for processing and pelletizing. The resulting pellets, or small black balls that are easily transportable and which serve as feed for steel mills, are loaded onto bigger trains.

Two-thirds of the iron ore pellets ride atop the rails to LKAB’s terminal at the port of Narvik, Norway, some 170 kilometers away. The other third is shipped to the port in Luleå, Sweden, about 350 kilometers away. Trainspotters are keen on photographing these blue and red electric locomotives, which are specially designed for cold conditions and heavy hauling. No photography at LKAB’s train depot, however, is allowed, so they have to go a ways away from the facility to get a good shot.

Map of Kiruna in relation to northern Fennoscandia. Source: Cryopolitics.

The deepest I would dive on my visit was to the visitor’s center, 540 meters underground. I put on a bright orange hardhat and sat down in the cinema – undoubtedly one of the world’s deepest – to watch a screening of LKAB’s promotional video, which opens with a (probably apocryphal) origin story of how a Sami reindeer herder first discovered a lump of ferrous rock near the Kiirunavaara mountain. The mine, at any rate, was built on Sami land, and Sami reindeer herders dragged heavy loads of iron ore all the way to Luleå before the railway opened.

The slick video wraps up by highlighting how LKAB’s operations are dedicated to achieving “sustainable mining.” The company is undertaking a project called HYBRIT, which will achieve fossil-free steel making by starting by the world’s first fossil-free and ultimately carbon-dioxide free pellet production process. Despite a lengthy discussion following the film with one of LKAB’s managers, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how digging an enormous pit into the ground is sustainable.

As the satellite imagery below shows, even though the mining operations take place underground, over the years, roads, waste rock piles, and other infrastructure have taken up increasingly more land. The city’s forced relocation is also gobbling up more land – a process that, as Johanna Overud, a professor at Umeå University writes, negatively impacts areas important for reindeer herding and migration routes close to town. Still, if anyone is going to try to convince the public of sustainable mining’s merits, I suppose it will be the Swedes.

Interdecadal Landsat satellite imagery reveals changes to the Kiruna iron ore mine.
Can mining ever truly be sustainable? A photo from LKAB’s Kiruna iron ore mine.

Cul-de-sacs in a mining town

Back above ground, layers of waste rock stacked like a gritty wedding cake built over decades are visible from the various quiet lanes that line the town. Without local applications for the earthen debris, it has piled up over time. The material would be useful were it located closer to population centers, as it could be used as gravel for road-building and construction. Sitting in the middle of the remote boreal forest, however, the perfectly shaped piles don’t do much other than just, well, sit there.

The stony heaps transform otherwise banal Swedish streets into otherworldly stage sets. Behind some hedges, a garbage bin, and brightly painted apartment buildings, where in most Swedish cities there would be a glimpse of blue sky or a thicket of birch trees, in Kiruna, the waste rock piles loom large.

The piles are so iconic, in fact, that they even have been drawn onto the town’s church, built in 1912 in the shape of a goahti (a Sami turf dwelling).

Kiruna Church (est. 1912) with the waste rock piles carved into the wood.

The main hiking path in Kiruna, the Midnight Sun Trail, winds up a steep hill (which, naturally, turns into a ski slope come winter) that similarly doesn’t offer much of an escape from the iron ore mine. If anything, the brutal scar into the landscape is even more starkly visible from on high.

A view of the Kiruna iron ore mine from the top of the Midnight Sun Trail.

Visions of America and Mars

Out on the Arctic taiga, Kiruna oddly recalls two other frontiers: America and Mars. Some of the shops and restaurants in town have the feel of a 1950’s sock hop that wouldn’t have been out of place in a blonder version of Cleveland, Ohio. In a burger shack called “Empes Gatukok” (Empe’s street kitchen), I ordered a strawberry milkshake. I slurped it down before paying a visit to the more locally-authentic Stejk Street Food, where I relished a mouthwatering meal of “suovas” – dry-salted and smoked reindeer – before boarding the night train to Stockholm.

Empes Gatukok in Kiruna.

As the train wended its way out of Kiruna, it circled the enormous iron ore mine site I’d toured the day before. It took eons before the piles of waste rock disappeared from sight. The soft pyramids were eerily beautiful in the setting sunlight, resembling the mountains in the background of the photo recently sent back by NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity. The comparison is doubly fitting, for meteorites from the Red Planet suggest the planet may have twice as much iron ore as the Earth’s crust. A future site for LKAB’s next venture, perhaps, which would “only” require relocating mineworkers rather than an entire town.

Waste rock piles visible from the train from Kiruna as it heads south towards Stockholm. August 2019.
A photo of the Central Butte area of Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2019.
Categories: Travel & Photo

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