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What Is Carbonatite?

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  • Written By: Andrew Kirmayer
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2016
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Carbonatite is a form of volcanic rock that typically has various minerals embedded within it. Similar to carbonates usually found in the ocean, it can often be spotted in mid-continental seismic zones such as the Great Rift Valley in Africa or the state of Nevada in the United States. Minerals such as iron, barium, calcite, and dolomite are often seen in carbonatite. Small amounts of uranium, titanium, or phosphorus are sometimes contained within it as well.

Lava that flows out onto the surface or molten rock that intrudes into materials underground can form carbonatite. Structures in the ground, such as dikes or sills, which typically solidify as molten rock passes up through older rock layers, often feature carbonatite as well. The volcanic rocks were once thought to be rare, but research has shown that they often form and then wear away once in contact with the atmosphere. Extrusive igneous rocks, which typically erupt or flow onto the surface, can contain carbonatite. These typically melt at relatively low temperatures or become a powder-like material that gets blown away by the wind or washed away by rain or flowing water.

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Mining operations are often conducted in open pits to get to carbonatite. Minerals contained in the rock as well as others sometimes found nearby are often considered desirable in many industries. In addition to health hazards from dust, acids, or some metals, deposits can include radioactive compounds like uranium or thorium. Chemicals and waste products often used in the process can collect in waste dumps or leak into groundwater, and sometimes become health hazards as well.

Some carbonatite deposits are thought to have formed relatively recently, but they can also be associated with most stages of the Earth’s history. They are typically seen in various types of landscapes, from mountainous terrain to ground that is relatively flat. Also found in land where there are no faults or other types of shear zones, these rock deposits can be located by tracing calcite-rich substances that travel in flowing ground water.

Magnetic as well as gravitational differences may be detected in rock that contains carbonatite deposits. In addition to Africa and the United States, these volcanic rocks are often found in Canada, Brazil, Russia, and India. They are generally associated with specific rock formations in Australia, Norway, and Spain as well. Active carbonite volcanoes are rare, while older ones are sometimes found in geologically active, mid-continental regions.

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