It would seem like Spring has finally made it to Lapland. The large pile of snow in the hotels courtyard has almost melted, and the nearby hills are starting to look a little naked. It’s amazing the transformation that has occurred over only two weeks. The landscape is full of hope – green leaves rapidly unfurling from trees that looked two weeks ago like they would never recover from the long winter, hares can be frequently spotted throughout town, and the moose and reindeer have come down toward the river and are more often seen on the road outside my hotel than cars. There’s also the 24 hours of daylight, coupled with 5 weeks on the road, that have resulted in me starting to resemble Al Pacino from 2002’s Insomnia. As an aside, if you haven’t seen insomnia, it’s worth a watch just for Robin Williams.
So, why am I in rural northern Sweden, and where am I exactly anyway? I am spending three weeks in a place called Gällivare, about 3 hours north-east of Luleä, which I’m sure you’ve never heard of either, unless you read Yvette’s blog last week! When you include nearby Malmberget and Koskullskulle the area has just over 15,000 inhabitants and is the second northernmost urban area in Sweden. The only urban area further north is Kiruna, an area Yvette was lucky enough to visit recently as well.
It is 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, and from May till August it never really gets dark. It’s not all doom and gloom though, today was a balmy 23 degrees, a rare treat before the area becomes ‘mosquito hell’ over the summer months as it is known by the locals.
I am here working for the nearby LKAB Malmberget iron ore mine. The town is known as the mining capital of Europe, with other nearby mines including LKAB’s Svapavaara and Kiruna Mine’s and Boliden’s Aitik. LKAB markets itself as ‘a high-tech international minerals group, world leading producer of processed iron ore products for steelmaking, and a growing supplier of mineral products for other industrial sectors’. They are a major employer in the area and in 2015 produced 24.5MT of iron ore, the majority of which was pellets for steel making. To put that in perspective, Australian iron ore exports for 2015 were in the region of 750Mt, however Sweden makes up about 90% of the European Union’s steel production so LKAB are a significant European producer. They produce three main product types: pellets, fines and special products. Pellets and fines go to steel mills and special products to foundries and the oil industry. The Geologist who was our guide proudly proclaimed that the pellets produced by Malmberget are the best quality pellets in the world, and they certainly receive a premium for their product.
What also makes LKAB unique is that they are state owned. Nationalisation of mines became the norm after the world wars, when developed countries were concerned with ensuring self-sufficiency of commodity supply, and developing, often recently independent, nations saw this as the route to economic independence from their colonial oppressors. However management was often poor, production was never optimal, and nepotism was rife so nationalisation of mines decreased, with privatisation the new norm. There are still a number of state owned enterprises including Chile’s Codelco, a laeading producer of copper, Morrocco’s OCP, the main producer of phosphate in the world, and Botswana’s diamond producer Debwana currently operating successfully.
LKAB has two underground mines, Kiruna and Malmberget, and one open and two planned open pits in nearby Svappavaara. The ore is shipped to one of two harbours, Kiruna and Svappavaara products to Narvik harbour and Malmberget products to Luleå.
All sorting, milling and pelletising is completed on site at the mines, and it is the final product that is then railed to ports to be shipped to their mainly European customers. The diagram below will give you a better idea of their production structure and how vertically integrated it is. It is certainly an impressive industrial area when you are used to an underground mine and associated concentrator.
Before we get to the really interesting stuff, a quick run-down on the geology of the Malmberget deposit. Malmberget is an Apatite iron ore of Kiruna-Type. Yep, you read correctly – Kiruna morphology is distinct enough to have its own deposit type named after it. The area strikes 5 kilometres in a West-East direction, and 2.5 kilometres in the North-South direction and comprises of 30 current and historical magnetite and hematite mines. The ore itself consists of medium to coarse grained magnetitie and hematite and it is high in apatite. The host rocks are strongly metamorphosed and deformed vulcanites of felsic to mafic composition. Vulcanite areas are intruded and surrounded by a later granite-pegmatite succession, which is the probable cause for the high metamorphosis and deformation grade. So put simply, it was originally a deposit very similar to Kiruna, that then underwent folding and subsequent metamorphism which resulted in much smaller vein-like deposits then is seen in the Kiruna deposit.
As a result, Malmberget deposit is mined with a combination of transverse and longitudinal Sub-Level Caving. The Sub-Level caving method is a large scale mass mining method, that is sequenced from the top of the deposit downward, where material is blasted, extracted but not filled so the overlying rock caves to fill in the void created by loading the rock out.
Mining in the area began in the 1600s but not on an industrial scale until the railroad to Lulea harbor was built in 1888. There are currently 13 orebodies in production, producing on average about 18Mt per annum. The majority of ore produced is magnetite and mining is divided between the Western and Eastern fields, with the big magnetite orebodies in the Eastern field and the small magnetite and hematite orebodies in the Western field.
As an engineer who has worked in a 5Mtpa underground mine (and I thought that was sizeable), the sheer volume of rock that is moved astounds me every time I visit. All their production and development statistics are equally staggering however, as in 2014 they completed almost 21km of development, installed 65,000 rock bolts and drilled 794,000 production metres.
Apart from the challenges that come with mining at this scale, the mine is actually underneath the town of Malmberget and the Community Centre had a fascinating model that showed the relationship of the orebodies to the town.