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Komatiites are ultramafic mantle-derived volcanic rocks. They have low SiO2, low K2O, low Al2O3, and high to extremely high MgO.


Komatiites were named for their type locality along the Komati River in South Africa.

True komatiites are very rare and essentially restricted to rocks of Archaean age and most are greater than two billion years old, restricted in distribution to the Archaean shield areas. Komatiites occur with other ultramafic and high-magnesian mafic volcanic rocks in Archaean greenstone belts.

Komatiites are restricted to the Archaean, with few Proterozoic or Phanerozoic komatiites known (although high-magnesian lamprophyres are known from the Mesozoic). This restriction in age is thought to be due to secular cooling of the mantle, which may have been up to 500 °C hotter during the early to middle Archaean (4.5 to 2.6 Ga). The early Earth had much higher heat production, because of the greater abundance of radioactive elements, as elements with a relatively short half-life, such as the uranium isotope with mass 235, have appreciably diminished in abundance by radioactive decay.

The youngest komatiites are from the island of Gorgona on the Caribbean oceanic plateau.



Magmas of komatiite compositions have a very high melting point with calculated eruption temperatures in excess of 1600 °C. Basaltic lavas normally have eruption temperatures of about 1100 °C to 1250°C. The higher melting temperatures required to produce komatiite have been attributed to the presumed higher geothermal gradients in the Archean Earth.

Komatiitic lava would have behaved as a superfluid when erupted; it would have behaved as fluidly as water. Compared to the basaltic lava of the Hawaiian plume basalts at ~1200 °C which behaves as treacle or honey, the komatiitic lava would have been incredibly swift in travelling across the surface, leaving extremely thin lava flows (down to 10 mm thick). The major komatiite sequences preserved in Archaean rocks are thus considered to be lava tubes, ponds of lava or other conduits, where the komatiitic lava accumulated.

Komatiite chemistry is thought to be different from that of basaltic and other common mantle-produced magmas, because of differences in degrees of partial melting. Komatiites are considered to have been formed by high degrees of partial melting, usually greater than 50%, and hence have high MgO with low K2O and other incompatible elements. Kimberlite, another magnesium-rich igneous rock, is relatively rich in potassium and in other incompatible elements, and is thought to form as a result of less than a percent or so of partial melting fluxed by water and carbon dioxide.

There are two geochemical classes of komatiite; aluminium undepleted komatiite (AUDK) (also known as Group I komatiites) and aluminium depleted komatiite (ADK) (also known as Group II komatiites). These two classes of komatiite represent a real petrological source difference between the two types related to depth of melt generation. Al-depleted komatiites have been modeled by melting experiments as being produced by high degrees of partial melting of hydrous mantle at low pressure where Al-bearing pyroxenes in the source are not melted, whereas Al-undepleted komatiites are produced by high degree partial melts at greater depth, allowing melting of Al-rich pyroxene.

Boninite magmatism is similar to komatiite magmatism but is driven more by melting induced by volatile flows above a subduction zone than by decompression melting. Boninites with 10-18% MgO tend to have higher LILE (Ba, Rb, Sr) than komatiites.

Komatiitic magmas are considered to be a source for spatially associated tholeiite basalts based on a study linking the two rock types in the Karelian greenstone belt of northwest Russia.

At present Io is believed to be producing komatiite lavas with temperatures of up to 1700 °C.


 The pristine volcanic mineralogy of komatiites is composed of forsteritic olivine (Fo90 and upwards), calcic and often chromian pyroxene, anorthite (An85 an upwards) and chromite.

A considerable population of komatiite examples show a cumulate texture and morphology. The usual cumulate mineralogy is highly magnesium rich forsterite olivine, though chromian pyroxene cumulates are also possible (though rarer).

Volcanic rocks rich in magnesium may be produced by accumulation of olivine phenocrysts in basalt melts of normal chemistry: an example is picrite. Part of the evidence that komatiites are not magnesium-rich simply because of cumulate olivine is textural: some contain radiating sprays of olivine crystals, clearly not phenocrysts, but rather in a texture attributable only to rapid crystallization of the olivine from a magnesium-rich melt.

Another line of evidence is that the MgO content of olivines formed in komatiites is toward the nearly pure MgO forsterite composition, which can only be achieved in bulk by crystallisation of olivine from a highly magnesian melt.

The often rarely preserved flow top breccia and pillow margin zones in some komatiite flows are essentially volcanic glass, quenched in contact with overlying water or air. Because they are quenched, they represent the liquid composition of the komatiites, and thus record an anyhdrous MgO content of up to 32-40% MgO. Some of the highest magnesian komatiites with clear textural preservation are those of the Wannaway section of the Widgiemooltha Komatiite, with MgO of >39%.

The mineralogy of a komatiite varies systematically through the typical stratigraphic section of a komatiite flow and reflects magmatic processes which komatiites are susceptible to during their eruption and cooling. The typical mineralogical variation is from a flow base composed of olivine cumulate, to a spinifex textured zone composed of bladed olivine and ideally a pyroxene spinifex zone and olivine-rich chill zone on the upper eruptive rind of the flow unit. The "spinifex" texture is named after an Australian grass that grows in clumps with similar shapes.

Mineral species also encountered in komatiites include pargasitic amphibole (amphibole with >20%MgO), phlogopite, baddeleyite, ilmenite and pyrope garnet.


There are virtually no known unmetamorphosed komatiites within the Earth's crust at the present time, therefore 'komatiites' should technically be termed 'metakomatiite' though the prefix meta is inevitably assumed. Because of this ubiquitous metamorphism, the mineralogy of a komatiite reflects primary magmatic chemistry, and the metamorphic fluids which have affected the rocks. Komatiites are usually highly altered and serpentinized or carbonated from metamorphism and metasomatism. This results in significant changes to the mineralogy of the komatiites and the texture is rarely preserved.

Hydration vs Carbonation

The metamorphic mineralogy of ultramafic rocks, particularly komatiites, is only partially controlled by composition. The character of the connate fluids which are present during low temperature metamorphism whether prograde or retrograde control the metamorphic assemblage of a metakomatiite (hereafter the prefix meta- is assumed).

The factor controlling the mineral assemblage is the partial pressure of carbon dioxide within the metamorphic fluid, called the XCO2. If XCO2 is above 0.5, the metamorphic reactions favor formation of talc, magnesite (magnesium carbonate), and tremolite amphibole. These are classed as talc-carbonation reactions. Below XCO2 of 0.5, metamorphic reactions in the presence of water favor production of serpentinite.

There are thus two main classes of metamorphic komatiite; carbonated and hydrated. Carbonated komatiites and peridotites form a series of rocks dominated by the minerals chlorite, talc, magnesite or dolomite and tremolite. Hydrated metamorphic rock assemblages are dominated by the minerals chlorite, serpentine-antigorite, brucite. Traces of talc, tremolite and dolomite may be present, as it is very rare that no carbon dioxide is present in metamorphic fluids. At higher metamorphic grades, anthophyllite, enstatite, olivine and diopside dominate as the rock mass dehydrates.

Mineralogic variations in komatiite flow facies

Komatiite tends to fractionate from high-magnesium compositions in the flow bases where olivine cumulates dominate, to lower magnesium compositions higher up in the flow. Thus, the current metamorphic mineralogy of a komatiite will reflect the chemistry, which in turn represents an inference as to its volcanological facies and stratigraphic position.

Typical metamorphic mineralogy is tremolite-chlorite, or talc-chlorite mineralogy in the upper spinifex zones. The more magnesian-rich olivine-rich flow base facies tend to be free from tremolite and chlorite mineralogy and are dominated by either serpentine-brucite +/- anthophyllite if hydrated, or talc-magnesite if carbonated. The upper flow facies tend to be dominated by talc, chlorite, tremolite, and other magnesian amphiboles (anthophyllite, cummingtonite, gedrite, etc).

For example, the typical flow facies (see below) may have the following mineralogy;

Facies: Hydrated


A1 Chlorite-Tremolite


A2 Serpentine-Tremolite-Chlorite


A3 Serpentine-Chlorite


B1 Serpentine-Chlorite-Anthophyllite


B2 Massive Serpentine-Brucite

Massive Talc-Magnesite

B3 Serpentine-Brucite-Chlorite



Komatiite can be classified according to the following geochemical criteria;

  • SiO2; typically 40 - 45%
  • MgO greater than 18%
  • Low K2O (<0.5%)
  • Low CaO and Na2O (<2% combined)
  • Low Ba, Cs, Rb (incompatible element) enrichment; ΣLILE <1,000ppm
  • High Ni (>400ppm), Cr (>800ppm), Co (>150ppm)

The above geochemical classification must be the essentially unaltered magma chemistry and not the result of crystal accumulation (as in peridotite). Through a typical komatiite flow sequence the chemistry of the rock will change according to the internal fractionation which occurs during eruption. This tends to lower MgO, Cr, Ni towards the top, and increases Al, K2O, Na and CaO and SiO2 toward the top of the flow.

Rocks with high MgO, high K2O and Ba, Cs, Rb etc. may be lamprophyres, kimberlites or other rare ultramafic, potassic or ultrapotassic rocks.

Morphology and occurrence

Komatiites often show pillow lava structure, autobrecciated upper margins consistent with underwater eruption forming a rigid upper skin to the lava flows, under which considerable lava tubes and pools accumulate. Proximal volcanic facies are thinner and interleaved with sulfidic sediments, black shales, cherts and tholeiitic basalts. Komatiites were produced from a relatively wet mantle. Evidence of this is from their association with felsics, occurrences of komatiitic tuffs, Nb anomalies and by S- and H2O-borne rich mineralizations.

Textural features

A common and distinctive texture is known as spinifex texture and consists of long acicular phenocrysts of olivine (or pseudomorphs of alteration minerals after olivine) which give the rock a bladed appearance especially on a weathered surface. The spinifex texture is the result of rapid crystallization of a supercooled liquid.

Crystal growth is retarded due to the superfluid nature of the komatiite, and proceeds in a 'flash freeze' to form the spinifex texture.

Harrisite texture, first described from the locality of Harris, Scotland, is formed by nucleation of crystals on the floor of the lava flow chamber. Harrisites are known to form megacrystal aggregates of pyroxene and olivine up to 1 metre in length.




Komatiite volcano morphology is interpreted to have the general form and structure of a shield volcano, typical of most large basalt edifices, as the magmatic event which forms komatiites erupts less magnesian materials.

However, the initial flux of the most magnesian magmas is interpreted to form a channelised flow facies, which is envisioned as a fissure vent releasing highly fluid komatiitic lava onto the surface. This then flows outwards from the vent fissure, concentrating into topographical lows, and forming channel environments composed of high MgO olivine adcumulate flanked by a 'sheeted flow facies' aprons of lower MgO olivine and pyroxene thin-flow spinifex sheets.

The typical komatiite lava flow has six stratigraphically related elements;

  • A1 - pillowed and variolitic chilled flow top, often grading and transitional with sediment
  • A2 - Zone of quickly chilled, feathery acicular olivine-clinopyroxene-glass representing a chilled margin on the top of the flow unit
  • A3 - Olivine spinifex sequence composed of sheaf and book-like olivine spinifex, representing a downward-growing crystal accumulation on the flow top
  • B1 - Olivine mesocumulate to orthocumulate, representing a harrisite grown in flowing liquid melt
  • B2 - Olivine adcumulate composed of >93% interlocking equant olivine crystals
  • B3 - Lower chill margin composed of olivine adcumulate to mesocumulate, with finer grain size.

Individual flow units may not be entirely preserved, as subsequent flow units may thermally erode the A zone spinifex flows. In the distal thin flow facies, B zones are poorly developed to absent, as not enough through-flowing liquid existed to grow the adcumulate.

The channel and sheeted flows are then covered by high-magnesian basalts and tholeiitic basalts as the volcanic event evolves to less magnesian compositions. The subsequent magmatism, being higher silica melts, tends to form a more typical shield volcano architecture.

Intrusive komatiites

Komatiite magma is extremely dense and unlikely to reach the surface, being more likely to pool lower within the crust. Modern (post-2004) interpretations of some of the larger olivine adcumulate bodies in the Yilgarn craton has revealed that the majority of komatiite olivine adcumulate occurrences are likely to be subvolcanic to intrusive in nature.

This is recognised at the Mt Keith nickel deposit where wall-rock intrusive textures and xenoliths of felsic country rocks have been recognised within the low-strain contacts. The previous interpretations of these large komatiite bodies was that they were "super channels" or reactivated channels, which grew to over 500 m in stratigraphic thickness during prolonged volcanism.

These intrusions are considered to be channelised sills, formed by injection of komatiitic magma into the stratigraphy, and inflation of the magma chamber. Economic nickel-mineralised olivine adcumulate bodies may represent a form of sill-like conduit, where magma pools in a staging chamber before erupting onto the surface.

Economic importance

The economic importance of komatiite was first widely recognised in the early 1960's with the discovery of massive nickel sulfide mineralisation at Kambalda, Western Australia. Komatiite-hosted nickel-copper sulfide mineralisation today accounts for about 14% of the world's nickel production, mostly from Australia, Canada and South Africa.

Komatiites are associated with nickel and gold deposits in Australia, Canada, South Africa and most recently in the Guiana shield of South America.

See also


  • Hess, P. C. (1989), Origins of Igneous Rocks, President and Fellows of Harvard College (pp. 276-285), ISBN 0-674-64481-6.
  • Hill R.E.T, Barnes S.J., Gole M.J., and Dowling S.E., 1990. Physical volcanology of komatiites; A field guide to the komatiites of the Norseman-Wiluna Greenstone Belt, Eastern Goldfields Province, Yilgarn Block, Western Australia., Geological Society of Australia. ISBN 0-909869-55-3
  • Blatt, Harvey and Robert Tracy (1996), Petrology, 2nd ed., Freeman (pp. 196-7), ISBN 0-7167-2438-3.
  • S. A. Svetov, A. I. Svetova, and H. Huhma, 1999, Geochemistry of the Komatiite–Tholeiite Rock Association in the Vedlozero–Segozero Archean Greenstone Belt, Central Karelia, Geochemistry International, Vol. 39, Suppl. 1, 2001, pp. S24–S38. PDF accessed 7-25-2005
  • Vernon R.H., 2004, A Practical Guide to Rock Microstructure, (pp. 43-69, 150-152) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81443-X
  • Komatiitesby N. T. Arndt (Author), E. G. Nisbet (Author)Publisher: Unwin Hyman (June 1982) ISBN 0045520194 ,Hardcover: 543 pages .
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Komatiite". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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