KIRUNA, Sweden ― Near the top of the world, more than 90 miles into the Arctic Circle, lies Kiruna. Nestled between two mountains, it’s a small but sprawling city of 18,000 people with views over two mountains. To the north, Luossavaara is cleaved open, a legacy from its former life as an open pit mine, to the southwest is Kiirunavaara, a working mine, belching out columns of smoke.
This is the century-old mine on which Kiruna’s fortunes are made and broken. Workers toil nearly 1 mile below ground, sending out 6,800 tons of iron ore a day on trains destined for the Norwegian port of Narvik and then to the rest of the world. Refined into steel, it’s enough ore to produce 40,000 cars a day.
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the mine,” says Gun-Britt Landin, who leads guided mine tours with the local tourist center and was born in Kiruna. “The city and the mine have been living in symbiosis all these years, and when things happen in the mine, well, it has an effect on the city.”
And things are happening. The mine may be the linchpin of the city, but it’s also destroying it. Mining tunnels incline under the city, leaving Kiruna perched perilously on top of crumbling rocks. These “cave in, part by part, and in the end will swallow our city,” says Landin. Cracks and subsidence have already claimed a clutch of structures near the mine, and it’s estimated the rest of the city center will tumble inward before the end of the century.
So what to do with a mine that’s eating a city? The answer: Keep the mine; move the city. The municipality, in conjunction with the state-owned mining company LKAB, has drawn a big red line around the threatened part of the city.
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