We were out on a summer walk that we do every year, out near the mine, on empty tracks through the scrub, wondering if we could see any changes in the land, in the area that is subsiding around the mine.
Occasionally there are dramatic news stories about Kiruna – written by people who don’t live here – as if we live in daily danger. The reality is rather more prosaic. There’s no mining activity underneath where people actually live – that’s why they need to move the town in the future – so there’s no danger of us falling into the pit as it is sometimes portrayed. But it’s true that the mining activity comes closer and closer, and you can’t help but be aware of it. We’re used to the blasts at 01.25 every night. Sometimes you can’t hear them at all, sometimes you hear and feel a tremor. We’re not disturbed by this. But now there are many more what they call ‘seismic events’ that are noticeable in town.
A ‘seismic event’ is an earthquake by another name, and no-one is surprised this happens. The mining company are taking iron ore out of the rock, and when they remove it they leave a hanging wall above, and eventually, parts of this fall. When a large part falls they call it ‘an expected seismic event’.
We had one of those a couple of nights ago. It’s a thud and a shudder when you don’t expect it. Our wooden house does seem to move, and it’s funny that our first thoughts were not of the mine – it felt like a lorry had driven into the house. A few seconds later and the thought of ‘seismic event’ reassured us this was probably not the case. After that you wonder about the area of subsidence and how fast it grows now. So we went out for a walk on the wild side.
It’s quiet out there, as you’d expect. Giant steel tubes glint in the sun, measuring points to track how the land is moving. The birds and wildflowers don’t mind, they’re having a whale of a time where the road no longer goes.
Dead end roads are one of Kiruna’s specialities. You don’t need a navigation system to find your way out of Kiruna – there are only four roads out and two of them are dead ends within an hour or two. Until the 1980s (when they built the road to Norway) Kiruna itself was a dead end. There wasn’t even a road to it until the 1930s. In the winter leaving town you can only turn right or left.
In the summer, however, a lot more roads appear in the landscape – in fact it’s littered with them, though most of them are out of use, and all of them are dead ends. Some of them are roads up to summer houses, not used at all in the winter and so not visible then. Most of the roads that appear in the summer are ghost roads, ways that people used to travel, by cart and horse, or later by car. Anywhere else these abandoned roads would be built on, or used for new housing developments. Here they’re just left as reminders of the ways once travelled. Like wrinkles in the face of the landscape, they’re evidence that the area has a past.
You can trace the changing shape of the town in its roads. The big road news at the moment is that the main road through town, the E10, has to be moved somewhere else – because of the mine subsidence – so there are preparations to build it skirting north rather than south of town. Even nearer to the mine is one of the four roads out of town, the road to the dead end of Nikkoluokta. It’s already too close to the pit, so a new road is currently being built, and by the looks of things there will be a giant new roundabout to connect it to the E10.
Some other roads will soon, rather literally, be a dead end – the ones pointing in the direction of the growing pit. There is much hoo-hah about the town moving and what will happen, as if it’s something new. But locals will tell you that it has been happening in the town for the last fifty years. In the early twentieth century the area nearest the mine was full of small wooden houses and some factory buildings. This area was called Ön, which means ‘The Island’. It wasn’t an island, except that it had the mine on one side, the lake on another, and the railway on the other, and it was at the foot of the hill on which Kiruna town currently stood, so they perhaps felt themselves rather cut off from town life. However, in its early days Kiruna gloried in the splendour of its own tram line which took workers to the mine, and the tramline went through Ön.
Ön began to disappear in the 70s, as the ground slowly gave way to subsidence. By the end of the 70s most of it had gone – buildings abandoned, factories closed. The area of Ön – now at a fallen, lower level, next to the growing pit – is a green oasis, home to a million mosquitoes and many colourful wildflowers. Peering down at it from a summer road nearby (a road barely used, from which you can see many measuring markers of the subsidence) you can still the see the old roads down there, cracked and broken, marking the spaces that were between buildings that no longer exist.
It has been happening in Kiruna for a long time, land falling lower, people having to move, roads falling into disuse, nature taking over. It’s a kind of natural dead end, where Nature can take back her own.