Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A (brief) History of Mining in Finland

When I was researching Finnish forestry for an earlier post, I learned that Finland has a multicentury history of sustainably exploiting their forest resources, which I think might be a significant contributor to their modern culture of sustainability.  While this is in obvious contrast to other European countries that at various points were almost completely deforested for their shipbuilding industry (looking at you England, Denmark, and probably many others...), it also made me wonder why Finland ended up focusing on their renewable forest resources rather than nonrenewable resources, like minerals, as many other countries have decided to.  It could be for some cultural reasons, but that would be a difficult hypothesis to test, so I began thinking about other possibilities.  Is it for geologic reasons (e.g. they are missing these minerals)?  Is it for economic reasons (e.g. the forest resources are valuable enough)?  How about political reasons (e.g. government has never encouraged mining or has bad laws)?  Fortunately, I am currently on a field trip studying the ore geology of Finland, which seemed like the perfect place to ask a lot of silly questions.

Learning about the Rapakivi granites on our geology field trip from Professor Krister Sundblad.
Geological

One of the main ways valuable minerals form, especially those that sought over the last couple hundreds of years (gold, silver, iron, copper), are when water gets heated by magma that approaches the surface.  This often happens near the boundaries of tectonic plates as they collide or pull apart.  Without going too much further into detail, Finland and the rest of the Nordic Countries are made up of many of these areas that have been stuck together throughout geologic time.  However, the mines that currently exist are not huge on the global scale -- some of the biggest Finnish mines contain on the order of 100 Megatons of ore, while the largest mine in the world is the El Teniemente mine in Chile, which is around 10,000 Megatons.

Oil basically does not exist in Finland because the most recent ice age removed pretty much everything down to the ancient (up to 1.9 billion years old!) bedrock, then left new (around 10,000 years old) sediment on top.  Oil and other petroleum resources are pretty much never found in these types of locations.

Economic

One important factor is that in order to search for ore deposits and begin mining, there must be the economic desire.  While it could be argued that these deposits are always worth it (as in "who doesn't love gold?!"), I believe that Finns have never really had the desire to look for it in their country.  The best example of this is that Finland currently has the biggest gold mine in Europe, but they did not start mining until the price of gold shot up in the mid-2000s.  In other words, Finland's small mine size could just be because mineral prices could be too low to for them to bother finding or exploiting larger ones.

Political

Finnish politics until 1809 were run by Swedish politics, since it was part of that country.  From 1809-1917, it was an autonomous duchy in Russia, meaning it was technically Russian but actually just kept doing things the way they had under Swedish rule.  So, we should look to the historic attitudes of mining in Sweden.

In the early 1600s, Sweden was ruled by Gustav II Adolf, who among many other things (not least among them, expanding the Swedish empire to its maximum borders) encourage mining in both Sweden and Finland.  He began mining in Sweden at some of the oldest still-operated mines in the world, and even sent people to Finland to study how to find new ore deposits.  One such guy invented a technique we still use today that involves tracing glacial erratic boulders containing ore back based on the direction the glaciers came.  And he did that without knowing that glaciers had even even existed or were capable of such action!  King Gustav II Adolf even supported mining enough to pay personal visits to mines, such as one we visited on our field trip.  So, it seems that Finland has been open to mining, it therefore must be some other reason that they have not been avid miners.

Summary for the lazy reader:

Finland throughout time has been focused on exploitation of renewable forest resources rather than nonrenewable mineral resources, which I think is a possible root cause of its its modern sustainability.  Swedish-ruled Finland was active in searching for minerals, so it seems unlikely that politics played a role.  The geology is perfect for finding ore, though maybe is short on huge deposits, as evidenced by the numerous small mines in the Finland today.  Therefore, I think the most likely reason Finland never really developed as a mining superpower is that it was never economically necessary.  Perhaps when prices for ore-derived metals increase, Finland will decide that they want to add mining to their economic portfolio.

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