1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dolomite

DOLOMITE, a mineral species consisting of calcium and magnesium carbonate, CaMg(CO3)2, and occurring as rhombohedral crystals or large rock-masses. Analyses of most well-crystallized specimens correspond closely with the above formula, the two carbonates being present in equal molecular proportions (CaCO3, 54·35; MgCO3, 45·65%). Normal dolomite is thus not an isomorphous mixture of calcium and magnesium carbonates, but a double salt; and any variations in composition are to be explained by the isomorphous mixing of this double salt with carbonates of calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and rarely of zinc and cobalt.

Britannica Dolomite 1.jpg
Fig. 1.
Britannica Dolomite 2.jpg
Fig. 2.

In crystalline form dolomite is very similar to calcite, belonging to the same group of rhombohedral carbonates; the primitive rhombohedron, r (100), parallel to the faces of which there are perfect cleavages, has interfacial angles of 73° 45′, the angle of the cleavage rhombohedron of calcite being 74° 55′. A specially characteristic feature is that this rhombohedron is frequently the only form present on the crystals (in calcite it is rare except in combination with other forms); the faces are also usually curved (fig. 1), sometimes to an extraordinary degree giving rise to saddle-shaped crystals (fig. 2). Crystals with plane faces are usually twinned, there being an interpenetration of two rhombohedra with the vertical axes parallel. The secondary twin-lamination, parallel to the obtuse rhombohedron e (110), so common in calcite, does not exist in dolomite. In the degree of symmetry possessed by the crystals there is, however, an important difference between calcite and dolomite; the former has the full number of planes and axes of symmetry of a rhombohedral crystal, whilst the latter is hemihedral with parallel faces, having only an axis of triad symmetry and a centre of symmetry. This lower degree of symmetry, which is the same as that of dioptase and phenacite, is occasionally shown by the presence of an obliquely placed rhombohedron, and also by the want of symmetry in the etching and elasticity figures on the faces of the primitive rhombohedron.

Dolomite is both harder (H. = 31/2–4) and denser (sp. gr. 2·85) than calcite. The two minerals may also be readily distinguished by the fact that dolomite is not acted upon by cold, dilute acids (see below, Dolomite Rock). Crystals of dolomite vary from transparent to translucent, and often exhibit a pearly lustre, especially when the faces are curved; the colour is usually white or yellowish.

The crystallized mineral was first examined chemically by P. Woulfe in 1779, and was named compound-spar by R. Kirwan in 1784; other early names are bitter-spar, rhomb-spar and pearl-spar (but these included other rhombohedral carbonates). The name dolomite (dolomie of N. T. de Saussure, 1792) is in honour of the French geologist, D. G. Dolomieu, who in 1791 noted that certain Tyrolese calcareous rocks and Italian marbles effervesce only slightly in contact with acid; this name was for many years applied to the rock only, but was later extended to the crystallized mineral, first in the form dolomite-spar.

In the white crystalline dolomite-rock of the Binnenthal near Brieg in Switzerland beautiful water-clear crystals of dolomite are found; and crystallized masses occur embedded in serpentine, talc-schist and other magnesian silicate rocks. The best crystallized specimens are, however, usually found in metalliferous deposits; for example, in the iron mines of Traversella near Ivrea in Piedmont (as large twinned rhombohedra) and Cleator Moor in Cumberland; in the deposits of lead and zinc ores at Alston in Cumberland, Laxey in the Isle of Man, Joplin in Missouri; and in the silver veins of Schemnitz in Hungary and Guanajuato in Mexico.

Several varieties of dolomite have been distinguished, depending on differences in structure and chemical composition. Miemite is a crystallized or columnar variety, of a pale asparagus-green colour, from Miemo near Volterra in Tuscany; taraspite is a similar variety from Tarasp in Switzerland. Gurhofite, from Gurhof near Aggsbach in Lower Austria, is snow-white, compact and porcellanous. Brossite, from the Brosso valley near Ivrea in Piedmont, and tharandite, from Tharand in Saxony, are crystallized varieties containing iron. Closely related is the species ankerite (q.v.).  (L. J. S.) 

Dolomite Rock.—The rock dolomite, also known as dolomitic or magnesian limestone, consists principally of the mineral of the same name, but often contains admixture of other substances, such as calcite, quartz, carbonate and oxides of iron, argillaceous material, and chert or chalcedony. Dolomites when very pure and well crystallized may be snowy white (e.g. some examples from the eastern Alps), but are commonly yellow, creamy, brownish or grey from the presence of impurities. They tend to be crystalline, though on a fine scale, and appear under the microscope composed of small sharply angular rhombohedra, with a perfect cleavage and very strong double refraction. They can be often recognized by this, but are most certainly distinguished from similar limestones or marbles by tests with weak acid. Dolomite dissolves only very slowly in dilute hydrochloric acid in the cold, but readily when the acid is warmed; limestones are freely attacked by the acid in either state. Magnesian limestones, which contain both dolomite and calcite, may be etched by exposing polished surfaces for a brief time to cold weak acid; the calcite is removed, leaving small pits or depressions. The distribution of the calcite may be rendered more clear by using ferric chloride solution. This is decomposed, leaving a yellow stain of ferric hydrate where the calcite occurred. Alternatively, a solution of aluminium chloride will serve; this precipitates gelatinous alumina on contact with calcite and the film can be stained with aniline dyes (Lemberg’s solution). The dolomite is not affected by these processes.

Dolomites of compact structure have a higher specific gravity than limestones, but they very often have a cavernous or drusy character, the walls of the hollows being lined with small crystals of dolomite with a pearly lustre and rounded faces. They are also slightly harder, and for these and other reasons they last better as building stones and wear better when used for paving or road-mending. Dolomites are rarely fossiliferous, as the process of dolomitization tends to destroy any organic remains originally present. As compared with limestones they are less frequently well bedded, but there are exceptions to this rule. Many dolomites, particularly those of the north of England, show a very remarkable concretionary structure. The beds look as if made up of rounded balls of all sizes from a foot or two in diameter downwards. Often they are stuck together like piles of shot or bunches of grapes. They are composed of fibrous radiate calcite crystals, which by some kind of concretionary action have segregated from the dolomitic material and grouped themselves together in this way. Other concretions from these beds resemble bunches of corals, tufts of plants, or present various strange imitative forms.

Dolomite, unlike calcite, is not secreted by marine animals to build up the hard parts of their skeletons, and it is generally agreed also that dolomite is only very rarely and under exceptional conditions deposited directly from solution in water. On the other hand, there is much evidence to show that limestones may absorb or be partly replaced by magnesium carbonate, and the double salt dolomite substituted for calcite by one of those processes which are described as “metasomatic.” Thus the Carboniferous limestones of various parts of Britain pass into dolomites along lines of joint, fissure or fault, or occasionally along certain bedding planes. At the same time the rock becomes crystalline, its minute structure is altered, its fossils are effaced, and as dolomite has a higher specific gravity than limestone, contraction results and cavities are formed. The prevalence of crystalline, concretionary and drusy structures in dolomite can thus be simply explained. The process may actually be studied in many “magnesian limestones,” in which by means of the microscope we may trace the gradual growth of dolomite crystals taking place simultaneously with the destruction of the original features of the limestone. Recent investigations in coral reefs show that these changes are going on at the present day at no considerable depths and in rocks which have not long consolidated.

All this goes to prove that the double carbonate of calcium and magnesium is under certain conditions a more stable salt than either of the simple carbonates, and that these conditions recur in nature with considerable frequency. Experiments have proved that at moderately high temperatures (100° to 200° C.) solutions of magnesium salts will convert calcite into dolomite in the laboratory, and that aragonite is even more readily affected than calcite. The analogy with dolomitization of limestones is strong but not complete, as the latter process must take place at ordinary temperatures and approximately under atmospheric pressures. No completely satisfactory explanation of the change, from the standpoint of the geologist, has as yet been advanced, though much light has been thrown upon the problem. Many limestones are rich in aragonite, but this in course of time tends to recrystallize as calcite. Magnesium salts are abundant in sea-water, and in the waters of evaporating enclosed coral lagoons and of many bitter lakes. Calcite is more soluble than dolomite in water saturated with carbonic acid and would tend to be slowly removed from a limestone, while the dolomite increased in relative proportion. Dolomite also being denser than calcite may be supposed to replace it more readily when pressure is increased. These and many other factors probably co-operate to effect the transmutation of limestones into dolomites.

Examples of dolomitization may be obtained in practically every geological formation in which limestones occur. The oldest rocks are most generally affected, e.g. the Cambrian limestones of Scotland, but the change occurs, as has already been stated, even in the upraised coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific oceans which are very recent formations. It is very interesting to note that dolomites are very frequent among rocks which indicate that desert or salt-lake conditions prevailed at the time of their deposit. The dolomite or magnesian limestone of the English Permian is an instance of this. The explanation may be found in the fact that the waters of bitter lakes are usually rich in magnesium salts which, percolating through beds of limestone, would convert them into dolomite. Among the most famous dolomites are those of the Dolomite Alps of Tirol. They are of Triassic age and yield remarkably picturesque mountain scenery; it is believed that some were originally coral reefs; they are now highly crystalline and often contain interesting minerals and ores. The galena limestone of the North American Trenton rocks is mostly a dolomite.

Dolomites furnish excellent building stones, and those of the north-east of England (Mansfield stone, &c.) have long been regarded with great favour on account of their resistance to decomposition. They vary a good deal in quality, and have not all proved equally satisfactory in practice. Part of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster is built of dolomite.  (J. S. F.)