What is Limestone?

So Pedro de Moel beachLimestone cropping at So Pedro de Moel beach, Marinha Grande, Portugal.

Where it is found

Limestone makes up about 10% of the total volume of all sedimentary rocks. Limestones may also form in both lacustrine and evaporite depositional environments.

Limestone often contains variable amounts of silica in the form of chert or flint, as well as varying amounts of clay, silt and sand as disseminations, nodules, or layers within the rock. The primary source of the calcite in limestone is most commonly marine organisms. These organisms secrete shells that settle out of the water column and are deposited on ocean floors as pelagic ooze or alternatively are conglomerated in a coral reef (see lysocline for information on calcite dissolution). Secondary calcite may also be deposited by supersaturated meteoric waters (groundwater that precipitates the material in caves). This produces speleothems such as stalagmites and stalactites. Another form taken by calcite is that of oolites (oolitic limestone) which can be recognized by its granular appearance.

iron in LimestoneIron impregnations in limestone

Limestone Composition

Calcite can be either dissolved by groundwater or precipitated by groundwater, depending on several factors including the water temperature, pH, and dissolved ion concentrations. Calcite exhibits an unusual characteristic called retrograde solubility in which it becomes less soluble in water as the temperature increases. When conditions are right for precipitation, calcite forms mineral coatings that cement the existing rock grains together or it can fill fractures. Karst topography and caves develop in carbonate rocks due to their solubility in dilute acidic groundwater. Cooling groundwater or mixing of different groundwaters will also create conditions suitable for cave formation.

Tennessee Limestone A stratigraphic section of Ordovician limestone exposed in central Tennessee, USA. The less-resistant and thinner beds are composed of shale

Coastal limestones are often eroded by organisms which bore into the rock by various means. This process is known as bioerosion. It is most common in the tropics, and it is known throughout the fossil record (see Taylor and Wilson, 2003).

Because of impurities, such as clay, sand, organic remains, iron oxide and other materials, many limestones exhibit different colors, especially on weathered surfaces. Limestone may be crystalline, clastic, granular, or massive, depending on the method of formation. Crystals of calcite, quartz, dolomite or barite may line small cavities in the rock.

Travertine is a banded, compact variety of limestone formed along streams, particularly where there are waterfalls and around hot or cold springs. Calcium carbonate is deposited where evaporation of the water leaves a solution that is supersaturated with chemical constituents of calcite. Tufa, a porous or cellular variety of travertine, is found near waterfalls. Coquina is a poorly consolidated limestone composed of pieces of coral or shells.

During regional metamorphism that occurs during the mountain building process (orogeny) limestone recrystallizes into marble.

LogoThin-section view of a Middle Jurassic limestone in southern Utah. The round grains are ooids; the largest is 1.2 mm in diameter. This limestone is an oosparite.


Limestone and marble are very reactive to acid solutions, making acid rain a significant problem. Many limestone statues and building surfaces have suffered severe damage due to acid rain. Acid-based cleaning chemicals can also etch limestone, which should only be cleaned with a neutral or mild alkaline-based cleaner.

CourthouseCourthouse built of limestone in Manhattan, Kansas

Uses of limestone

Limestone is very common in architecture, especially in North America and Europe. Many landmarks across the world, including the pyramids in Egypt, are made of limestone. So many buildings in Kingston, Ontario, Canada were constructed from it that it is nicknamed the 'Limestone City'. On the island of Malta, a variety of limestone called Globigerina limestone was for a long time the only building material available, and is still very frequently used on all types of buildings and sculptures. Limestone is readily available and relatively easy to cut into blocks or more elaborate carving. It is also long-lasting and stands up well to exposure. However, it is a very heavy material, making it impractical for tall buildings, and relatively expensive as a building material. Limestone was most popular in the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Train stations, banks and other structures from that era are normally made of limestone. Limestone is used as a facade on some skyscrapers, but only in thin plates for covering rather than solid blocks. In the United States, Indiana, most notably the Bloomington area, has long been a source of high quality quarried limestone, called Indiana limestone. Many famous buildings in London are built from Portland limestone. Limestone was also a very popular building block in the Middle Ages in the areas where it occurred since it is hard, durable, and commonly occurs in easily accessible surface exposures. Many medieval churches and castles in Europe are made of limestone. Beer stone was a popular kind of limestone for medieval buildings in southern England.

Bands of limestone emerge from the Earth's surface in often spectacular rocky outcrops and islands. Examples include the Burren in Co. Clare, Ireland; the Verdon Gorge in France; Malham Cove in North Yorkshire and the Isle of Wight, England; on Fr near the Swedish island of Gotland, the Niagara Escarpment in Canada/USA, Notch Peak in Utah, and the Ha Long Bay National Park in Vietnam. Unique habitats are found on alvars, extremely level expanses of limestone with thin soil mantles. The largest such expanse in Europe is the Stora Alvaret on the island of Oland, Sweden. Another area with large quantities of limestone is the island of Gotland, Sweden. Huge quarries in northwestern Europe, such as those of Mount Saint Peter (Belgium/Netherlands), extend for more than a hundred kilometers.

The world's largest limestone quarry is at Michigan Limestone and Chemical Company in Rogers City, Michigan.


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