Kiruna: Relocating a city

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Six Eiffel Towers’ worth of iron daily. 78% of the EU’s entire output of iron ore annually. Up to 15 trains a day, each three quarters of a kilometre in length and carrying 6,800 tonnes of iron ore, running seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Any way you look at the output of Europe’s largest iron ore mine, it is almost impossible to comprehend the scale of the operation. Located in the far north of Sweden, around 100km above the Arctic Circle, mining has occurred there since the early 19th Century. Recently, however, the rise of skyscrapers and ship-building in rapidly flourishing South East Asia, as well as growth in the European automotive industry, has led to an unquenchable thirst for high-quality iron. And for Sweden, with some of the purest iron ore reserves on the planet, business has quite literally been booming, with around 10,000 tonnes of crude rock blasted daily.

A residential home set for demolition

Mining on such a gargantuan scale has repercussions, however. With mining output at an all-time high, and showing no signs of slowing, expansion is the only option. Downwards to a depth of 1,565m, compared to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at a mere 828m. Or outwards, with the expansion of the mine into the surrounding municipality of Gällivare. Or, arguably more ambitiously, and assuredly more controversially, under the nearby towns of Malmberget and Kiruna. An exaggeration of the effects caused by literally undermining a town is nearly impossible, particularly as the sublevel caving method of mining utilised in this area relies on the ground above the mine to be shattered into collapse by explosives, before being excavated through more than a kilometre underground. The result on the surface resembles a meteorite impact.

For northern Sweden, particularly the Gällivare area, mining is one of the few large industries to benefit the area, leading the Swedish state to buy 100% ownership of the company that undertakes it, LKAB, in the 1950s. With temperatures ranging from a frigid -43C to a comparatively mild 19C in summer, agriculture is near impossible, apart from traditional Sami reindeer herding, which is unsustainable on an industrial scale as excessive grazing harms the tundra. The prosperity that the mine brings to the area in the forms of employment, infrastructure and tourism is considerable.
The solution to such an immense issue as causing a town to inevitably collapse is equally impressive: the relocation of the towns, piece by piece, 3km away from the mining epicentre. Urban transformation on this scale is unprecedented worldwide, let alone in the quiet mining towns of northern Sweden. The relocation of Kiruna and Malmberget involves extensive projects that will affect an estimated 10,000 people by 2035, according to current predictions. This means that, in total, around 5,000 homes and 700,000 square metres of residential and other premises will be moved or replaced during this period.

The cost of the move is not yet finalised but is likely worth less than 20 more years of profit for LKAB. However, it is not yet known if the mine has 20 more years of ore waiting to be revealed. Unlike with oil exploration, reserves cannot be discovered with geological surveys and seismic scans of a potential site; the only method is prospecting with a shovel, nowadays mechanical, and seeing what is dug up. This means theoretically that the ore reserves may run out even before the relocation is completed. Despite this uncertainty, the residents affected in the meantime have little choice but to move, with the hope that the mine will continue to provide for generations to come.