North of the Arctic Circle: Mining iron ore and mushrooms in Kiruna, Sweden

Sven-Ivan Mella, who grows shiitake mushrooms in a disused office in an iron ore mine in Kiruna, Sweden, harvests fresh fungi off a log of alder wood. I visited the mine in May 2007.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.

Reading “Deep Down Dark,” about the rescue of the 33 miners in the Chilean desert in 2010 (see August 29 post), got me thinking about the mines that I’ve visited on my travels, one in particular.

In May 2007, I flew from Stockholm to Kiruna, Sweden, to visit the LKAB mine, the largest underground iron ore mine in the world. It’s owned by the Swedish government. Much of the Kiruna mine’s high-grade processed iron ore is used in steelmaking, and is exported to markets in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

In reality, the Swedish and Chilean mines don’t have much in common other than the obvious: They both are sources of a metal. In the San José Mine in the Atacama desert, copper and some gold were extracted. The San José Mine has been closed since the 33 miners were rescued and it is unlikely to ever open again.

The LKAB mine in far north Sweden has a good safety record and it’s expected to continue producing for several more decades.

My trip to Sweden started with several days spent visiting friends who live in a Stockholm suburb. But when I planned my itinerary, I knew I also wanted to go north, about 90 miles above the Arctic Circle, to see the area that is part of the traditional homeland of the indigenous Sami people, to check out the mine and learn more about why the central section of Kiruna was being relocated.

This two-week trip also included several days on the gorgeous island of Gotland, to walk along the medieval walls that encompass Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and undertake a lengthy self-guided ramble.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked at the time, ran my extensive stories and photos in the June 17, 2007, Travel section.

A current aerial view of the small city of Kiruna, with the massive mine dominating the center background. Photo by Fredric Alm, courtesy of LKAB Mining

Months earlier, I’d read a Washington Post story that said removal of the iron ore excavated at a level more than a half-mile down was causing the ground to collapse (also known as “ground deformation”), opening fissures and making some existing housing and municipal structures unsafe. The decision to move the town was made in 2004, so Kiruna, and neighboring Malmberget, about 46 miles away, would both undergo “urban transformation.”

When I arrived, spring hadn’t, as the temperature was hovering in the 30s during the day and snow was scattered on the ground in many places. The sun did eventually come out, but not for long, and I remember more overcast sky and cold than anything approaching a change of season.

There is an official LKAB mine tour, which can be booked through Kiruna’s tourism office. But I sought out a more informal, three-hour one, led by a retired electrician and software writer, Sven-Ivan Mella, who had worked at the mine for decades. I’d come across his name in several guidebooks, noting that his current specialty was growing shiitake mushrooms in a disused office in the mine.

He picked me up at my hotel in a minivan and provided a lot of background information about Kiruna, the Sami, and the mine’s founding before we actually drove in.

At the time of my visit, the mine had 248 miles of paved road. That number has likely increased as the downward digging into the magnetite ore has continued.

The company’s website says the Kiruna “ore body” is about 2.5 miles long and about 1.25 miles deep. More than 1 billion tons have been mined since the late 19th century. Twenty-first century drilling has reached a level of about 4,478 feet, and LKAB officials expect the ore body to hold out for another 20 to 30 years of excavation.

Not surprisingly, the roads in the mine were pitch black. The only illumination was the reflectors on the walls, and vehicle headlights. Fresh water is brought in via pipes, air is circulated by fans, and cables run for miles allowing all interior functions to be executed from banks of computers in state-of-the-art control rooms.

Mella drove me to what looked like a workshop, where an enormous three-hole borer took up a great deal of space — and dwarfed everything around it. I even had a chance to climb into the cab and have Mella snap a photo of me in a white hard hat, with my hands on the controls. He said that this machine, too, was run by remote control, though a driver positioned it before someone pushing buttons from a distance took over.

So how did the idea of growing shiitake mushrooms in the mine blossom?

In 1988, Mella was part of a group at a symposium in Takikawa, Japan, on the island of Hokkaido. The topic of discussion was how LKAB and Kiruna’s workers had dealt with a round of wide-ranging job loss.

His hosts showed Mella their shiitake mushroom farm, and a scheme was born.

Back in Kiruna, it didn’t take much to persuade mine officials that a shiitake farm could be a success. Darkness: check. Water source: check. Surplus manpower: check. Secure the necessary start-up components: check.

Using alder wood from a Finnish source, spawn and technical advice, Mella was on his way. In about six months he had his first crop, and at one point was harvesting more than 220 pounds of mushrooms a week.

He said one of his proudest moments was having his shiitakes served as part of the 1992 Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm.

Since my visit, Kiruna’s railway has been rerouted and a new main sewer line is now operating. New apartment construction is under way, with some families already in residence.

In 2001, Kiruna’s church was voted as Sweden’s most beautiful building. The red wooden exterior is in stark contrast to the overcast sky in May 2007 . The architect was Gustav Wickman. Completed in 1912, it was donated to the people of Kiruna by LKAB Mining.

Over the next 20 years, about 6,000 people in Kiruna (current population is about 23,000) will relocate as a total of 3,000 new housing units are constructed, in addition to a commercial center and new public buildings. Historic buildings, such as the church that resembles a Sami hut and which dates to 1912, will be disassembled and reconstructed.

The target date for completion is 2035.

Souvenir iron ore pellets from the mine in Kiruna are smaller than the average marble.

I came away from Kiruna with three unusual souvenirs: 3.5 ounces of fresh shiitake mushrooms, a recipe for cream of shiitake mushroom soup and seven gray-blue pellets of iron ore. My friends and I enjoyed the soup on my last night with them in Stockholm.

The pellets sit in a small porcelain dish I bought at a market in Tokyo, on the same sideboard as my amezaiku bunny (see August 22 post).

Quick reference: Learn more about the mine tour and the LKAB visitor center:

If you’re going all the way to Kiruna, check out the many seasonal outdoor activities available listed on the tourism website: I wasn’t able to find any current contact information on Mella’s mushrooms, but check with tourism officials to see if he’s still growing them and if his tour is available.

The tourism site also has links to dozens of beautiful photographs. Click on “press” at the bottom of the page.

More about LKAB:


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