Iron mines opened up Norwegian Arctic

Operation could be revived if Chinese demand remains strong


KIRKENES, NORWAY — Mines are not just simple job and money makers: take a look at the vast open pits of the iron mines near Kirkenes, Norway.

The mine, first opened in the early 1900s, employed 1,200 workers at its height and led to the development of a big part of Norway’s Arctic region.

But the Sydvaranger mine also caused national borders to be set between Norway, Russia and Finland, crippling the Saami’s access to their traditional reindeer herding areas and separating families.

The iron ore at the mine was 35 per cent pure, high enough to be easily used in the manufacture of ammunition.

During its many decades of operation, waste from the mine created a hill so high it cast a shadow over the nearby town of Bjørnevatn.

But that was nothing compared to the disaster cause by the mine’s demise in 1996, due to low metal prices. The closing rocked the region’s economy, which is only now recovering because of its rich potential in oil, gas and fisheries development.

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It was a “catastrophe,” says Tor-Olaf Jacobsen, a long-time employee of the mine.

The former mine is now a popular tourist attraction for visitors to Kirkenes, a few kilometres away. There, Jacobsen offers a two-hour tour of its three vast open pits; a fleet of giant rusted trucks which “shook the air” when they started; abandoned buildings; and a cave that sheltered 3,500 residents from bombs during the Second World War.

The pits now could be used as a venue for a Rolling Stones concert, Jacobsen suggests, because of their fine acoustics.

There are costly plans to re-open the mine if iron prices hold, and the demand for iron continues.

“It could be worth a lot,” he said. “If the prices hold, and if every Chinese person decided to trade in his bicycle for a new car.”

Meanwhile, another iron mining community, in the Arctic community of Kiruna, Sweden, must be moved to make room for that mine’s expansion.

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An old wooden church, the city hall, railway and national highway are to be moved as the Kirunavaara mine grows.

The mine, which first mined iron ore in open pits, is now the largest underground mine in the world. It was developed about 100 years ago.

Saami in that area credit this mine for having brought in many outsiders to Kiruna. Their presence, they say, made it harder for them to maintain their language and culture.

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