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Tufa is a terrestrial sedimentary rock, formed by the precipitation of carbonate minerals from ambient temperature water bodies. Geothermally heated hot-springs sometimes produce similar (but less porous) carbonate deposits known as travertine. Tufa is sometimes refered to as (meteogene) travertine; care must be taken when searching through literature to prevent confusion with hot spring (thermogene) travertine. Calcareous tufa should not be confused with tuff, a porous volcanic rock with parallel etymological origins.

Classification and Features

Modern and fossil tufa deposits abound with wetland plants; as such many tufa deposits are characterised by their large macrobiological component and are highly porous. Tufa forms either in fluvial channels or in lacustrine settings. Ford and Pedley (1996) provide a review of tufa systems worldwide.

Fluvial deposits

Deposits can be classified by their depositional environment (or otherwise by vegetation or petrographically). Pedley (1990) provides an extensive classification system, which includes the following classes of fluvial tufa:-
  • Spring - Deposits form on emergence from a spring/seep
  • Braided channel - Deposits form within a fluvial channel, dominated by oncoids (see oncolite)
  • Cascade - Deposits form at waterfalls, deposition is focussed here due to accelerated flow (see Geochemistry)
  • Barrage - Deposits form as a series of phytoherm barrages across a channel, which may grow up to several metres in height

Lacustrine deposits

Lacustrine tufas are generally formed at the periphery of lakes and build up phytoherms (freshwater reefs) and stromatolites. Oncoids are also common in these environments.

Other deposits

While fluvial and lacustrine systems make up the bulk of tufa systems worldwide, there are several other important tufa environments.

Calcareous Sinter

Although sometimes regarded as a distinct carbonate deposit, calcareous sinter formed from ambient temperature water can be considered a sub-type of tufa.


Calcareous speleothems may be regarded as a form of calcareous sinter. They lack any significant macrophyte component due to the absence of light, for this reason they are often morphologically closer to travertine or calcareous sinter.

Tufa columns

Tufa columns are an unusual form of tufa typically associated with saline lakes. They are distinct from most tufa deposits in that they lack any significant macrophyte component; this is due to the salinity excluding mesophilic organisms. Some tufa columns may actually form from hot-springs and therefore actually be a form of travertine. CaCO3 is precipitated when carbonate rich source waters emerge into alkaline soda lakes.


Tufa deposits form an important habitat for a diverse flora. Bryophytes (non-vascular land plants) and diatoms are well represented. The porosity of the deposits creates a wet habitat ideal for these plants.


Modern tufa is formed from supersaturated alkaline waters, with raised pCO2. On emergence, waters degas CO2 due to the lower atmospheric pCO2 (see partial pressure), resulting in an increase in pH. Since carbonate solubility decreases with increased pH, precipitation is induced. Supersaturation may be enhanced by factors leading to a reduction in pCO2, for example increased air-water interactions at waterfalls may be important, as may photosynthesis.

Recently it has been demonstrated that microbially induced precipitation may be more important than physico-chemical precipitation. Pedley et al. (2009) showed with flume experiments that precipitation does not occur unless a biofilm is present, despite supersaturation.

Calcite is the dominant mineral precipitate found; however, the polymorph aragonite is also found.


Tufa is common in many parts of the world. Some notable deposits include:-


Tufa is today occasionally shaped into a planter. Its porous consistency makes tufa ideal for alpine gardens. A concrete mixture called hypertufa is used for similar purposes.

Tufa is important in Armenian architecture

Reference List

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