Limestone

What is Limestone?

Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed primarily of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral calcite. It most commonly forms in clear, warm, shallow marine waters. It is usually an organic sedimentary rock that forms from the accumulation of shell, coral, algal and fecal debris. It can also be a chemical sedimentary rock formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate from lake or ocean water.

Limestone-Forming Environment – Marine

Most limestones form in shallow, calm, warm marine waters. That type of environment is where organisms capable of forming calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can easily extract the needed ingredients from ocean water. When these animals die their shell and skeletal debris accumulate as a sediment that might be lithified into limestone. Their waste products can also contribute to the sediment mass. Limestones formed from this type of sediment are biological sedimentary rocks. Their biological origin is often revealed in the rock by the presence of fossils.

Some limestones can form by direct precipitation of calcium carbonate from marine or fresh water. Limestones formed this way are chemical sedimentary rocks. They are thought to be less abundant than biological limestones.

Today Earth has many limestone-forming environments. Most of them are found in shallow water areas between 30 degrees north latitude and 30 degrees south latitude. Limestone is forming in the Caribbean Sea, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Mexico, around Pacific Ocean islands and within the Indonesian archipelago.

One of these areas is the Bahamas Platform, located in the Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles southeast of southern Florida (see satellite image at right). There abundant corals, shellfish, algae and other organisms produce vast amounts of calcium carbonate skeletal debris that completely blankets the platform. This is producing an extensive limestone deposit.

Limestone-Forming Environment – Evaporative

A drop of water hangs and evaporates on the tip of a stalactite. 

water droplet on stalactite

Limestone can also form through evaporation. Stalactites, stalagmites and other cave formations (often called “speleothems”) are examples of limestone that formed through evaporation. In a cave, droplets of water seeping down from above enter the cave through fractures or other pore spaces in the cave ceiling. There they might evaporate before falling to the cave floor. When the water evaporates, any calcium carbonate that was dissolved in the water will be deposited on the cave ceiling. Over time this evaporative process can result in an accumulation of icicle-shaped calcium carbonate on the cave ceiling. These deposits are known as stalactites. If the droplet falls to the floor and evaporates there a stalagmite could grow upwards from the cave floor.

The limestone that makes up these cave formations is known as “travertine” and is a chemical sedimentary rock. A rock known as “tufa” is a limestone formed by evaporation at a hot spring, lake shore, or other area.

Composition of Limestone

Limestone is by definition a rock that contains at least 50% calcium carbonate in the form of calcite by weight. All limestones contain at least a few percent other materials. These can be small particles of quartz, feldspar, clay minerals, pyrite, siderite and other minerals. It can also contain large nodules of chert, pyrite or siderite.

The calcium carbonate content of limestone gives it a property that is often used in rock identification – it effervesces in contact with a cold solution of 5% hydrochloric acid.

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