Mining devours entire houses: Kiruna - a city in Sweden is moving

Sweden's northernmost city is home to the world's largest underground iron ore mine.

Mining devours entire houses: Kiruna - a city in Sweden is moving

Sweden's northernmost city is home to the world's largest underground iron ore mine. Kiruna lives from ore mining - but the pit keeps expanding. In order not to be swallowed up by the mine, the residents have decided to take an extraordinary step.

In Kiruna, time seems to have stood still again for weeks. The midnight sun north of the Arctic Circle made every night feel like day. The sun has not disappeared below the horizon for almost 50 days. And yet something is constantly changing in Sweden's northernmost city: Because Kiruna is moving collectively. More precisely, the historic city center with dozens of shops and public facilities such as schools, the hospital and the church. Around 6000 residents will be relocated, which corresponds to a good third of Kiruna's population. What is this?

The reason for the mammoth project slumbers quietly and powerfully underground: Kiruna is home to the world's largest underground iron ore mine. Without them, the city, which is further from the capital Stockholm than Berlin is from Venice, simply would not exist. "The pit is eating its way into the city and spreading towards the old town - that's why we are relocating the city," says project manager Ingemar Törmä, as he walks through the new buildings in the so-called Quarter 8 with a helmet and bright yellow work clothes.

40 shops will move here from the old city center, plus almost 300 apartments. Törmä can list all the shops and cafés and locate them in their new place, from the Espresso House to the Centrum, Kiruna's oldest clothing store. He knows: "The pit won't get here." In other words, ore mining can continue without posing a threat to the community. Quarter 8 is one of several building blocks in an endeavor that has dominated Kiruna for years. It all started in 2004 with a forecast by the mining company LKAB, which warned of the effects of ore mining on urban structures.

In 2007, after much debate, Kiruna's municipal officials decided that "det nya Kiruna" - the new Kiruna - should be built elsewhere. Three and a half years later, the plan was to place the new center a good three kilometers east of the old city center. Now this center is to be inaugurated at the beginning of September with a large folk festival - a project worth billions has thus reached its preliminary high point.

In the long term, the Kiirunavaara iron ore mine would have endangered historical and other key buildings in the city. Several of these have already moved by loading them onto trailers, which move them to their new location at a maximum of five kilometers per hour at a snail's pace. Other buildings have been demolished: where, for example, the Igloo, Kiruna's first town hall, stood - with a view of the huge mine - there is only a large park. The new town hall has already been opened in the new center: it is circular, vaguely reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and has been given the name Kristallen - the crystal.

In front of the building stands one of Kiruna's old landmarks, the clock tower, which was once on the roof of the original City Hall. Other buildings such as the fire station and the church, which was voted the most beautiful building in Sweden in 2001, are to follow in 2026. By 2035, Kiruna's resettlement should then be finally complete. Why all the trouble?

Kiruna would probably never have existed without iron ore mining. At the end of the 19th century, the first settlements of miners arose on site, and in 1900 the community was given the name Kiruna. All of this was closely related to the founding of the LKAB company, which at that time started to exploit the iron ore deposits of the region. Mining secured important jobs, income and livelihoods - today thousands of jobs continue to depend directly or indirectly on it.

In 2021, LKAB shipped 27 million tons of finished iron ore products, about two-thirds of which came from Kiruna. Iron ore is ultimately used to produce steel, which is used in buildings and cars, but also in household appliances such as washing machines. "Without the iron ore from the mines, there would be no LKAB," the company makes clear on its website, where it explains the background to the city's transformation. "It's just not possible to stay there when mining is eating up the ground from below."

In order for operations to continue, large parts of the community would have to move, not only in Kiruna, but also in the small town of Malmberget a few kilometers south near Gällivare. The world's second largest underground mine for iron ore mining is located there. According to its own statements, LKAB bears the billions in costs for the resettlement in full. Not all residents of Kiruna like the massive move. In line with Swedish pragmatism, however, they largely agree that there is no getting around it.

Marielle Brandebo is aware that the old pedestrian zone through which she is strolling with her daughter will be gone in a few years. "It's pretty unique. But it has to be," she says. Katarina Oja reports that opinions about the move are very mixed. "For those who have to move, it's tedious, for others it's quite exciting," says the 36-year-old. "There are many different perspectives on this process."

An old couple looking at the old town center in front of the community center and planning to move from there in a good four years will definitely miss the original Kiruna: "People have gotten used to the old Kiruna. The new one is just too new for us." , says the woman, who is already in her 80s. "At the same time, it's nice that people have a job," she adds, before looking down at the floor. "My children work there under the ground too." Her husband, who came to Kiruna in 1955 to work in the mining industry, puts it in a nutshell: "The pit decides."

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