Carbonatites usually occur as small plugs within zoned alkalic intrusive complexes, or as dikes, sills, breccias, and veins. They are, almost exclusively, associated with continental rift-related tectonic settings. The majority of carbonatites are Proterozoic or Phanerozoic in age. It seems that there has been a steady increase in the carbonatitic igneous activity through the Earth's history, from Archean to present.
Nearly all carbonatite occurrences are intrusives or subvolcanic intrusives. This is because carbonatite lava flows are unstable and react quickly in the atmosphere. Carbonatite lavas may not be as uncommon as thought, but have been poorly preserved throughout Earth's history.
Only one carbonatite volcano is known to have erupted in historical time, Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania. It erupted the lowest temperature lava in the world, at 500-600 °C (930-1,100 °F). The lava is dominated by natrolite and trona, sodic calcite.
Evidence for each process exists, but the key is that these are unusual phenomenon. Historically, carbonatites were thought to form by melting of limestone or marble by intrusion of magma, however geochemical and mineralogical data discount this.
Natrocarbonatite is made up largely of two minerals, nyerereite (named after Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania) and gregoryite (named after John Walter Gregory, one of the first geologists to study the Great Rift Valley and author of the book The Great Rift Valley). These minerals are both carbonates in which sodium and potassium are present in significant quantities. Both are anhydrous and when they come into contact with the moisture of the atmosphere, they begin to react extremely quickly. The black or dark brown lava and ash erupted begins to turn white within a few hours.
Most carbonatites tend to include some silicate mineral fraction; by definition an igneous rock containing >20% carbonate minerals is classified as a carbonatite. Silicate minerals associated with such compositions are pyroxene, olivine, and silica-undersaturated minerals such as nepheline and other feldspathoids.
Geochemically, carbonatites are dominated by incompatible elements (Ba, Cs, Rb) and depletions in compatible elements (Hf, Zr, Ti). This together with their silica-undersaturated composition supports inferences that carbonatites are formed by low degrees of partial melting.
The Mount Weld carbonatite is unassociated with a belt or suite of alkaline igneous rocks, although calc-alkaline magmas are known in the region. The genesis of this Archaean carbonatite remains contentious as it is the sole example of an Archaean carbonatite in Australia.
Chilean carbonatites take the form of sills, lopoliths and rare dykes are reported in the Guyana Shield.
The Mud Tank and Mount Weld carbonatites take the form of multi-stage cylindrical intrusive bodies with several distinct phases of carbonatite intrusion. Smaller carbonatite sills and dykes are present in other Proterozoic mobile belts in Australia, typically as dykes and discontinuous pods.
The Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, in the Great Rift Valley, Africa, is the world's only active carbonatite volcano. Other older carbonatite volcanoes are located in the same region, including Homa Mountain.