The physio-chemical framework that generates carbonatites and, ultimately, the associated rare earth element deposits remains contentious. This primarily reflects the diverse tectonic settings in which carbonatites occur: large igneous provinces, continental rifts and major extensional terranes, syn- to post-collisional settings, or ocean islands. There is, however, a broad consensus that carbonatites (or their parental melts) originate in the mantle. These exotic melts have small volumes that make them ideal probes of conditions in their underlying source regions. We combine the carbonatite locations with global maps of lithospheric thickness, derived from seismic tomography, and show that post-Neoproterozoic carbonatites occur preferentially above the margins of thick cratonic lithosphere (e.g., adjacent to the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans or in North America, Greenland, and Asia) and where once thick lithosphere has undergone stretching (e.g., eastern Asia). Our thermal modeling reveals that lateral and vertical heat conduction on rifted craton margins, or rapid stretching of cratonic lithosphere, can mobilize carbonated peridotite at the temperatures (950−1250 °C) and pressures (2−3 GPa) required to form primary carbonatites or their parental alkali silicate melts. Importantly, our models show that heat conduction from upwelling mantle plumes or ambient mantle on rifted cratonic margins may sufficiently modify the temperature of the lithospheric mantle to cause melting of carbonated peridotite, settling the long-standing debate on the role of rifting and heating in the generation of carbonatites.

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