Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed largely of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate, CaCO3). Like most other sedimentary rocks, limestones are composed of grains; however, most grains in limestone are skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral or foraminifera. Other carbonate grains comprising limestones are ooids, peloids, intraclasts, and extraclasts. Some limestones do not consist of grains at all and are formed completely by the chemical precipitation of calcite or aragonite. i.e. travertine. The solubility of limestone in water and weak acid solutions leads to karst landscapes. Regions overlying limestone bedrock tend to have fewer visible groundwater sources (ponds and streams), as surface water easily drains downward through joints in the limestone. While draining, water and organic acid from the soil slowly (over thousands or millions of years) enlarges these cracks; dissolving the calcium-carbonate and carrying it away in solution. Most cave systems are through limestone bedrock. Limestone often contains variable amounts of silica in the form of chert (aka chalcedony, flint, jasper, etc) or siliceous skeletal fragment (sponge spicules, diatoms, radiolarians), as well as varying amounts of clay, silt and sand sized terrestrial detritus carried in by rivers. The primary source of the calcite in limestone is most commonly marine organisms. These organisms secrete shells made of aragonite or calcite and leave these shells behind after the organism dies. Some of these organisms can construct mounds of rock known as reefs, building upon past generations. Below about 3,000 meters, water pressure and temperature causes the dissolution of calcite to increase non-linearly so that limestone typically does not form in deeper waters (see lysocline). 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. Limestone makes up about 10% of the total volume of all sedimentary rocks. Limestones may also form in both lacustrine and evaporite depositional environments. 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. 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. 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. Folk and Dunham classifications are used to describe limestones more precisely. 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.
Limestone is partially soluble, especially in acid, and therefore forms many erosional landforms. These include limestone pavements, pot holes, cenotes, caves and gorges. Such erosion landscapes are known as karsts. Limestone is less resistant than most igneous rocks, but more resistant than most other sedimentary rocks. Limestone is therefore usually associated with hills and downland and occurs in regions with other sedimentary rocks, typically clays. 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 Verdun Gorge in France; Malham Cove in North Yorkshire and the Isle of Wight, England; on Fårö near the Swedish island of Gotland, the Niagara Escarpment in Canada/United States, Notch Peak in Utah, the Ha Long Bay National Park in Vietnam and the hills around the Lijiang River and Guilin city in China. The Florida Keys, islands off the south coast of Florida, are composed mainly of oolitic limestone (the Lower Keys) and the carbonate skeletons of coral reefs (the Upper Keys), which thrived in the area during interglacial periods when sea level was higher than at present. 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 Öland, 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.