The City They Had To Move
Since underground mining began in 1962, the people of Kiruna have known that one day they would have to move their home. Twenty-five years ago, Kenneth Stålnacke, a stout, bearded Swede, was working on the Kiruna railway when he was told that the city would someday be in danger. “It must have been in the early 80s, but it was a philosophical thing. At that time no one took it as a problem,” he says. The problem in those days was not that the mine was endangering people’s homes, but that the mine was itself in danger of shutting, due to the mid-80s slump in ore prices. Kiruna, 180km north of the Arctic Circle and 100km from its nearest neighbour, needed the mine desperately. Having to move was never a serious consideration. Until 2004.
Stålnacke’s office in the city hall looks west, directly out on to the long mound of Kiirunavaara. It is a rock that has been frantically reordered by man. There are terraces on the southern slopes, evidence of the open mining which continued until the 60s. Then, in the centre, a top-heavy tower, which was used to discharge waste rock down the slopes when the early subterranean mining began. To the north of the tower are some wider terraces created from graded waste rocks which was deposited there when the subterranean mining really took off. The profile of the hill is a national monument: a memorial to the men who hacked at iron with picks in temperatures as low as -40°C.
A model of Kiruna stands in the foyer of the Stadshus, the city hall, somewhere beneath Stålnacke’s feet. A thick red line runs in a generally northerly direction through the miniature town, passing within millimetres of the Stadshus itself. It is marked with the date 2013. Another line some 20mm further east is marked with the date 2023; the city’s heart, its main school and church lies in its path. These lines scored through the town are the mining engineers’ predictions about where the deformations will be. From the window of Stålnacke’s city-hall office, one can look across and see the great concavity at the foot of the mountain where the subterranean mining first made its impact felt, leaving behind a huge gully some 40 metres deep. The mining technique used at Kiruna, known as sub-level caving, means that the ground above the mining is allowed to collapse, in order to fill in the area beneath that has been removed. This, believe it or not, is safer than simply leaving a void. In the 60s, subsidence claimed an area of the city, called Ön, which was once at the foot of the Kiirunavaara hill. Nothing of it now remains. As for the cracks that are threatening the town anew, they are hidden below a thick white blanket of snow often several metres deep.
Two years ago, there was a sudden subsidence in the area immediately beneath the hill. Engineers insist that the deeper the mining gets, the less the chance there is of any subsidence, but people who work in the area most likely to be affected are clearly concerned. Ann-Gunnel Jensen is a receptionist at a museum for the city’s founder, Hjalmar Lundbohm. “We hope we don’t just sit here and suddenly, ‘poof’, we disappear,” she says – somewhat confounding the collective assurances made by mine and municpality that all citizens have been convinced this won’t happen.
When Anders Wilhelmson was first invited to Kiruna by Kenneth Stålnacke in 2004 for a brainstorming session on the city’s move, he was professor of architecture at the Royal School of Art in Stockholm and had a small practice. Effervescent and demonstrative, Wilhelmson has never managed to get one of his buildings past the conservative planning authorities in Stockholm, but he has built some curvaceous public housing in the more progressive city of Helsingborg and designs the interiors of Saab showrooms. Such well-paid work allows him to revel in his status as maverick before the planning authorities. “If we’d found this iron ore today, it would be like an oil field in the North Sea,” Wilhelmson says. “We’d have flown in with helicopters and removed the ore by railway down to Stockholm.” This was not the case, however, and the city grew up around the ore, over many years. Moving Kiruna away from the mine to a new site is a daunting prospect, even for a maverick. Wilhelmson is optimistic about Kiruna’s future. He believes that it is worth relocating Kiruna as, despite the economic downturn, iron prices will stay high, fuelled by the urbanisation of China and then India. “It will take another 100 years before the world, according to every prognosis, is fully urbanised,” he says. “There are no such figures saying we will be fully urbanised before 2100, but around that date we will be. Then of course the need for metal will slowly level out. That is the prognosis for the mine, but also for the city. By that date you are also getting to the limit of what can be physically mined out.” Iron-ore prices tripled between early 2006 and late 2007. To fuel the growth of its cities, China’s import of iron ore doubled between 2003 and 2006, and although LKAB doesn’t sell to China directly, the market was deeply affected by that nation’s flurry of city-building. In order to accommodate this expansion in demand, enlarging the mine to feed the further urbanisation of China, Kiruna must move. Wilhelmson points out that if global warming continues at its current pace, a sea route to China will open up and Kiruna, via the ice-free port of Narvik, would have direct access to a huge market.
A silver lining, perhaps. But first, there is the matter of securing the future of the city itself – including the all-important railway that transports the ore, and the electricity stations that power the entire operation. In 2004, shutting the mine or cancelling the expansion was never an option. It would have led to the economic collapse of Kiruna. And besides, electricity transformer station PT92, which powered the all-important railway, was in immediate danger from subsidence. It was time to move – though they weren’t sure where to. Roger Lindmark works for Vattenfall, the national electricity supplier, and clearly remembers the shock of learning his deadline. “The normal time frame for this kind of job is eight to ten years,” he says. “We were given three.” In those three years, Vattenfall had to build two new transformer stations, one to the south to feed the railway lines and another to the west on the other side of the Kiirunavaara – plumping for a site which they hoped would be suitable for Whilhelmson’s new city. Lindmark liaised with the municipality – but even from the consensus addicted Swedes, this was not an easy task. He faced bringing on-side not only the municipal authorities, the state authorities and the company, but also the national parks, parks with a European designation and the Sami – also known as the Lapps, an indigenous tribe of reindeer raising, snowmobile driving nomads with political clout. Swedish law recognises the east-west migratory routes that they use to take reindeer from the mountains in summer to the Baltic Sea in winter. Then there are the further mining concessions on land owned by the state that are not active, and the new line that the rail company Banverket would have to build. It took Lindmark two years to gain the consent that Vattenfall required – leaving one year to get the work done. No special allowances were made. The construction wasn’t any easier. “We had to build 600 new pylons to hold a new 80km network of 40kV and 130kV main cables for the city,” says Lindmark. Vattenfall began work on the pylons in winter, when the ground is frozen and the average daytime temperature is -15°C. In addition, it was forced to build many of the pylons in old mining areas, dropping 25-metre steel piles into disturbed ground by helicopter, rather than risk losing a crane down an old mineshaft.
When Lina Nällström, municipal spokesperson for the city move, began work in March 2008, she asked Vattenfall how long the old transformer station had left before the subsidence rendered it obsolete. She was told three months. Vattenfall successfully tested the new transformer stations the following month and finished the job with a month to spare, securing the electricity supply for the city, the mine and the vital railway line. It was the largest single job the state supplier had ever undertaken, and it managed to do it for £45 million. Being Swedish, Lindmark doesn’t crow about his achievements. “We worked with very understanding partners,” he says, when asked to explain how the team pulled off this mammoth feat.Of course, their new network may yet prove to be problematic. They had created a new electricity supply for a new city, but without knowing where that city was going to go. The railway must also re route to the west of the mine, on the secure, unsubsided side of the ore-body.
Lennart Thelin is president of FAB, a housing company owned by LKAB, and a man for whom work is simply something that you get done quickly and efficiently so you can go hiking. He has become just as used to moving houses as buying or building them. To the south in Malmberget, LKAB is experiencing some similar subsidence problems, although on a much more localised level. “We moved eight houses last year, pretty big villas – 200 square metres. It went well,” he says. “We realised that if you have a house that is in bad shape, don’t move it. We learned that our original idea to take the cellar with it was not good. We just build new cellars. Much easier.”
Top of the list for moving is the home of Kiruna’s founding father, Hjalmar Lundbohm – pioneering geologist, art-lover, philanthropist and first director of the mine in 1898. His wooden house is now a museum, and the mark he, along with architect Per-Olov Hallman, made on the city is inescapable. In fact, it is mainly because of these two men that Kiruna is being moved at all, rather than rebuilt at a fraction of the cost. In Sweden, this isolated city in an inhospitable region is still regarded with pride as a masterpiece of “friendly” city planning. Eschewing the 19th-century city grid, Hallman was influenced by medieval towns. To him, suiting a town to its landscape was more important than making it population-dense or easy to navigate. Kiruna was sited on the hillside opposite the mine with a good microclimate. The intimate squares are connected by cosy lanes, precluding the need to walk into cold blasts of wind. Even the planners who are now arguing over the future shape of Kiruna agree that the city’s original plan was brilliant. Moving it wholesale is a very Swedish approach. Thelin reckons it would take three months and cost about SKr5 million (£410,000) to move Lundbohm’s house, effectively sawing the building in half, craning it on to a lorry and driving it to a new site. “No problem,” says Thelin, who believes that he should only have to move ten houses in the next decade if the subsidence continues at its current rate. Precisely where he will move them to is another matter. Thomas Nylund started to work as city architect for the municipality in January 2005 and began to produce a new general plan.
An obvious early idea was to site the new area to the north-west of the existing city, beyond the ore body and the deformations which will slowly move eastwards. “It looked good for new housing, but we suspected there would be a question mark because it is an old mining area,” Nylund says. “We wrote to LKAB and asked them, ‘Would this area be suitable?’ They said, ‘No, this area is unsuitable for housing because it’s an old mining area. We cannot guarantee that the rock is stable.’” The president of LKAB, Ola Jonsson, made public comments that supported this. The planners scratched their heads and looked beyond to the small hill of Prästgårdsbacken, and sketched a new city centre on the hill. Nylund says that if he lives to be 100 he won’t know why LKAB did what it did next, but the mining company commissioned a masterplan vision from Anders Wilhelmson – one which recommended that the city move to the very spot that, months earlier, it had said was not viable. LKAB spokesman Anders Lindberg says that the shape and site of the new city was up to the local politicians, and that the plan “was neither a demand nor a promise, just a vision to show what was possible to do.” He adds: “What the municipality think of the LKAB vision, you have to ask them.” Nylund remains unconvinced by the new location proposed by LKAB and Wilhelmson, indicated on the layout model in Kiruna’s city hall by thick red lines cutting through the miniature streets. “It depends on what you believe in. No independent expert has been able to tell us what will be happening in 70 to 100 years ahead. It’s unlikely LKAB will even exist that long – no one could expect the economic downturn we are now experiencing. There’s a question about whether LKAB will exist in ten to 15 years,” he says. He rejects Wilhelsmson’s positive reading of future demand for iron.
Wilhelmson, Nylund’s rival, has envisaged a new type of grid for the layout of the city’s buildings. Rather than setting streets and buildings on right-angles, his city blocks are interlocking lozenges with curved ends, repeating across the landscape like multiplying bacteria in a petri dish. The curve at the ends of each block is determined by the turning curve of a monorail. Wilhelmson thinks the city could be car-free. Nylund thinks his city blocks look like “sausages” and doesn’t think it will work. He agrees that the city needs to be energy conscious, but believes that the grid system will provide greater density. “The grid is a good way of building rooms in the city with the street facades as walls of a home,” he says.
“Wilhelmson’s plan doesn’t create a good, cozy environment.” His words are borne out by Hans Murman, an architect who has won the commission to design the Sami parliament building in Kiruna (it will look like a tent or a snowdrift, and, in a masterpiece of bet-hedging, it can be dismantled into four chunks if it needs to be moved). “I think Wilhelmson’s proposal is a nice image, but on a closer look, I don’t think that the serpentine roads work when you start to imagine how to live, or how to take care of and lead the nature in to the city,” he says. Asked why he thinks LKAB went to unprecedented lengths to commission an alternative plan for the city, Nylund puts it down to the powers of persuasion: “Wilhelmson can be very convincing in his way of arguing. He ’s a very intense person.” He also suggests that the LKAB vision was a means of getting its preferred option for a new railway route, which would pass to the west of Kiirunavaara and the mine, past the planning committee. Wilhelmson’s plan was for a railway station to be placed inside Luossavaara, a smaller mountain to Kiruna’s north, which has been cleaved by previous mining activity but is now covered by a ski slope. “This idea of the tunnel would have been a good idea,” says Nylund grudgingly. But he adds that it was never financially viable. The plan, with its monorails and a subterranean railway station, was just a sweetener. Wilhelmson dismisses Nylund’s complaints out of hand. “He is making things worse for the city. He has power for the moment because it’s hard to remove such a person.”
This disagreement about the fundamentals of city-building has strained relations between mine and municipality, though these are now easing. “In the beginning [the relationship] was bad, but it has improved,” says Wilhelmson. “We didn’t understand each other that well, but I think we do now.” Stålnacke wants the city that will be created from the rubble of the old one to match it in terms of social ambition, although his attempts to invoke the name of LKAB’s first managing director, Hjalmar Lundbohm, were not greeted with enthusiasm. “I don’t think his ideas are felt in the company. Not these days. Not that much,” says Stålnacke. “I have said to Martin Ivert, the previous CEO, that he should be the new Hjalmar Lundbohm, but he didn’t buy it,” he adds with a rueful chuckle. The current mine manager is Anders Lindholm. He has a civil-engineering background and worked for a time in the construction industry before his wife, a native of Kiruna, brought him to the north. For him, Lundbohm was an intelligent man, but a benign despot – and therefore an unsuitable figure to emulate. “There was a guy here from a mine in Papua New Guinea last week,” he says. “They had a situation there that we had 100 years ago. If they want anything to work, they have to take care of it themselves, otherwise it doesn’t exist.” Lindholm is more concerned about keeping the mine going as a profitable concern. He compares the underground mining of iron ore in Europe to the bumblebee – something that, on paper, shouldn’t work yet does. “Economically it shouldn’t be possible to mine iron ore underground and compete on the export market. All our competitors are open pits. Some of the biggest pits in Brazil don’t even need to blast the ore, they just dig it out of the ground,” he says.
It is three times more expensive to extract ore from a depth of 1,036 metres (as is the case in Kiruna) than simply to scoop it out of the ground. LKAB has developed a sophisticated system of driverless diggers and trains, many of which are controlled remotely from the seventh floor of the mining offices beneath the mountain – known as “Seventh Heaven” throughout the town. Frederik Kumpula is 19 years old and unemployed. He worked for a time as a cleaner at the mine, but was laid off. His father works on the seventh floor at LKAB, where he operates mining machinery remotely. “My father has worked there for 22 years and he does nothing except sit down all day, playing with a joystick,” Frederik says. He’d clearly prefer to work but doesn’t mind being on benefits.
Mining the Kiruna way may not adhere to tried-and-true mining techniques used elsewhere, but the Swedes are adept at – and very proud of – making what they have work to its full potential. Take the magnetite – it’s a magnetically active ore, so it can be separated from waste rock by magnets rather than harmful and expensive chemicals. Indeed, the infrastructure that LKAB owns above the mine – hidden discreetly from Kiruna by a veil of graded waste rock – is as impressive as the 300km of subterranean tunnels below ground. In many ways, this giant industrial complex qualifies to be called a city as much as Kiruna itself. It is a huge network of steel buildings, nestling like a Bond villain’s hideout inside a crater of snow, and it is where LKAB adds value to its ore. After crushing and refining the high-grade magnetite, it adds various materials such as ovaline, which is mined in Greenland and transported on the empty trains that return from Narvik. Small quantities are added to the smelter in order to suit the blend the steel mills need. It’s a clean, energy efficient process – and it was pioneered in Kiruna back in the 50s. Newer investments include a huge pelletising plant, KK4, which opened in 2008 and is the mine’s pride and joy. KK4 is the biggest single industrial investment in Swedish history at SKr7.5 billion. The plant will allow LKAB to produce about five million tonnes of pellets per year. It is the world’s largest gratekiln- cooler sintering machine, heating the ore to below melting point so the metal particles stick together. On the 70-metre-long grate, the ore is dried and preheated, before being sintered in the 40-metre long rotary kiln at 1,250°C. A chemical reaction within the magnetite means it provides 60 per cent of the heat in this process – the kind of resourcefulness that helped Kiruna flourish in the first place, and which they hope will see it through this challenge.
Nothing proves this better than the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, 18km to the east of Kiruna. Inspired by ice-sculpture competitions held in the early 1990s on the banks of the Torne River, each year the hotel’s owners commission architects and designers to make a temporary building from snow. Every November, snow is sprayed on to a steel framework and allowed to freeze. After a couple of days, the frame is removed, leaving a maze of freestanding corridors of snow. It has become an important symbol in the attempt to diversify Kiruna’s economy – the mine no longer employs the majority of people, and without the prospect of other work, the citizens will drift away, regardless of where the buildings move to.
Kiruna is now turning its attention from the Earth to the skies. It is within the aurora zone; the eerie green curtain wafts over the forests on clear nights. The tourists love it, but the scientists are even more intrigued. The first Old Norse account of the northern lights is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from about 1230. The storyteller has heard about this phenomenon from adventurers returning from Greenland. He even gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires, that the flares of the Sun, which was on the opposite side of the world, were just discernible, or that glaciers could store so much energy that they eventually became fluorescent. Today, scientists flock to the area to study the phenomenon, continuing Kiruna’s long relationship with space. The Esrange Space Centre was established in 1966, and the Swedish Space Corporation tracks satellites from here – the position is ideal for controlling satellites in polar orbit. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has recognised that Kiruna and Esrange already have the necessary infrastructure for a working spaceport, and announced in March that Kiruna will be their main spaceport in Europe, with launches set to start in 2012. Ticket prices will be around $200,000 (£135,000) – with a stay at the Ice Hotel thrown in, naturally.
Johanna-Bergstrom-Roos, the spokesperson for Esrange, shows us round the cosy but tremendously un-Virgin-like facility. “We don’t need to make giant investments,” she says. “We just need to make it look like a spaceport.” The hope is that tickets for space flight will boost other tourist industries, from hotel rooms to dog-sledding and ski lessons.
It seems as if Kiruna’s leaders, made aware by mining of how thin is the crust upon which their city stands, would wish to propel it into space. Within Hallman’s landscaping and just outside the city hall, the municipality has planted a Maxus rocket, from a series of rockets first fired from Esrange in 1991. Stålnacke has declared his political ambition “for the city to be not so dependent on the mine”. Space tourism is an improbable means of doing this, but the Maxus rocket stands as a totem to this dream – a reminder that the hulking hill that sits across the valley isn’t everything, that Kiruna must change.
Mayor Stålnacke will be hard pressed to remember this over the coming months. The major infrastructure has been secured. The electricity grid is in and a new railway line to the west of the mine has been given the go-ahead. If Vattenfall’s speedy job on the electricity is anything to go by, the rail administration company Banverket will, with luck, finish the new line before land deformation ruins the old one.
A lot depends on it. Steel mills buy ore from Kiruna because, although it is more expensive, it comes when they want it and how they want it. Now the municipality must deliver a whole new city.
In Kiruna, they know that you have to work together to get things done. Stålnacke is trying to convince the country’s ruling right-wing coalition to help the town. The coalition thinks LKAB and the municipality should sort out the problem on their own. Fine, says Stålnacke, but you own some of the land we need if we want to move the city. Can we have that?
Stålnacke is not even Kiruna’s only mayor. Since 2006, the Social Democrats have been in coalition with a local party, Kirunapartiet, and he has shared his seat with Lars Törnman. “When the Kirunapartiet started, they said they were more Social Democrat than us. It’s very Swedish,” he says with a smile.
The next election in 2010 will decide the fate of Kiruna. Part of what has kept its mine going is its ability to attract the best workers – the city, with its galleries, theatres and cozy charm, is an important part of that. It is a civilised place with hundreds of cultural and sporting societies. If that fabric is damaged, the city’s population will slowly drift away and the mine won’t be able to recruit from the top drawer. With some Swedish consensus, however, the city’s move could create a place that is equal to its past, but one that looks to a future beyond the mine.