This town is on the move

By Andrew Matheson
Our most northerly stop in Swedish Lapland was in the town of Kiruna. It’s sobering to think that our high-rise hotel and the cafe where we ate dinner will be gone within a few years. The very reason for the town’s existence is consuming it.

Kiruna is the site of an underground mine that contributes 90% of Europe’s iron ore production. For more than a century miners have followed a rich seam of magnetite down into the earth. We travelled to 540 metres below ground. Well, 540 metres below the datum point set at the historical summit of Mount Kiruna. The mountain is a little lower than it used to be.

We travelled in an ordinary city bus, spiraling down on part of a network of more than 500 km of paved roads inside the mine. We went to chambers that were the main extraction area in the 1980s. Now the ore comes from more than 1,300 metres down, and drilling has proved the seam extends to at least 2 km below the surface.

So what of the town of Kiruna? The seam of ore lies at an angle, so the deeper the mining goes the more it extends beneath the town. As the ore is extracted the overlying rock subsides, the surface settles and buildings collapse or at least are damaged. The town is progressively being moved; far enough to be safe for a time but close enough to serve the mine that its existence still relies on.

House are being demolished and families relocated at the mining company’s expense. Historic houses are being moved, on processions of trucks that are quite a local spectacle. It’s more of a conundrum to work out how to save important historic buildings such as the brick town hall and one of Sweden’s finest wooden churches. The price of progress might be high.

Most of the mine’s output is exported as value-added iron ore pellets shipped from the Norwegian port of Narvik, and we marvelled at the long ore trains snaking through the hills as we travelled to the coast. More of Narvik in the next post.

Above: Kiruna housing that will soon be gone

Feature photo: Half a kilometre underneath Kiruna