Types of Waves

Compare and contrast properties and mechanics of different types of waves

When an earthquake occurs, some of the energy it releases is turned into heat within the earth. Some of the energy is expended in breaking and permanently deforming the rocks and minerals along the fault. The rest of the energy, which is most of the energy, is radiated from the focus of the earthquake in the form of seismic waves.

Seismic waves fall into two general categories: body waves (P-waves and S-waves), which travel through the interior of the earth, and surface waves, which travel only at the earth's surface.

What You'll Learn to Do

  • Identify P-wave characteristics and behavior
  • Identify S-wave characteristics and behavior
  • Identify surface wave characteristics and behavior


Body Waves

Body waves travel through the interior of the earth. There are two types of body waves: P-waves and S-waves.

P-Waves

The P in P-waves stands for primary, because these are the fastest seismic waves and are the first to be detected once an earthquake has occurred. P-waves travel through the earth's interior many times faster than the speed of a jet airplane, taking only a few minutes to travel across the earth.

P-waves are predominantly compressional waves. As a P-wave passes, material compresses in the same direction the wave is moving, and then extends back to its original thickness once the wave has passed. The speed at which P-waves travel through material is determined by:

  • rigidity—how strongly the material resists being bent sideways and is able to straighten itself out once the shearing force has passed - the more rigid the material, the faster the P-waves
  • compressibility—how much the material can be compressed into a smaller volume and then recover its previous volume once the compressing force has passed; the more compressible the material, the faster the P-waves
  • density—how much mass the material contains in a unit of volume; the greater the density of the material, the slower the P-waves


The animations below show P-waves propagating across a plane (left) and from a point source (right).

animation of a compression wave across a plane animation of a compression wave emanating from a point in the center of a plane P-waves travel through liquids and gases as well as through solids. Although liquids and gases have zero rigidity, they have compressibility, which enables them to transmit P-waves. Sound waves are P-waves moving through the air.

Because the earth's mantle becomes more rigid and compressible as the depth below the asthenosphere increases, P-waves travel faster as they go deeper in the mantle. The density of the mantle also increases with depth below the asthenosphere. The higher density reduces the speed of seismic waves. However, the effects of increased rigidity and compressibility in the deep mantle are much greater than the effect of the increased density.

P-waves travel through materials with rigidity and/or compressiblity, and density
greater rigidity faster P-waves
greater compressibility faster P-waves
greater density slower P-waves

S-Waves

The S in S-waves stands for secondary, because they are the second-fastest seismic waves and the second type to be detected once an earthquake has occurred. Although S-waves are slower than P-waves, they still travel fast, over half the speed of P-waves, moving at thousands of kilometers per hour through the earth's crust and mantle.

S-waves are shear waves (though that is not what the S stands for). They move by material flexing or deforming sideways (shearing) from the direction of wave travel, and then returning to the original shape once the wave passes. The speed at which S-waves travel through material is determined only by:

  • rigidity -- how strongly the material resists being bent sideways and is able to straighten itself out once the shearing force has passed - the more rigid the material, the faster the S-waves
  • density -- how much mass the material contains in a unit of volume - the greater the density of the material, the slower the S-waves


The animations below show S-waves propogating across a plane (left) and from a point source (right):

animation of a shear wave across a plane animation of a shear wave emanating from a point in the center of a plane S-waves can travel only through solids, because only solids have rigidity. S-waves cannot travel through liquids or gases.

Because the earth's mantle becomes more rigid as its depth below the asthenosphere increases, S-waves travel faster as they go deeper in the mantle. The density of the mantle also increases at greater depth, which has the effect of reducing the speed of seismic waves, but the increase in rigidity is much greater than the increase in density, so S-waves speed up as they get deeper in the mantle, in spite of the increased density.

S-waves travel through materials with rigidity and density
greater rigidity faster S-waves
greater density slower S-waves

Surface Waves

There are two types of surface waves, Rayleigh waves and Love waves. Rayleigh waves are named after Lord Rayleigh (John Strutt), an English aristocrat who, in his work as a scientist and mathematician, developed a detailed mathematical accounting of the type of surface wave named after him. Rayleigh waves are set off by the combined effect of P- and S-waves on the earth's surface. Rayleigh waves are sometimes called rolling waves. In Rayleigh waves the surface of the earth rises up and sinks down in crests and troughs, similar to waves on the surface of water. People who are outdoors during a major earthquake commonly see Rayleigh waves moving across the surface of the earth, and can feel the ground rising and falling as the waves pass beneath them.

Love waves, sometimes called L-waves, are named after Augustus Love, an English mathematician and physicist who first modeled them mathematically. Love waves involve the surface shearing sideways and then returning to its original form as each wave passes.

All surface waves travel slower than body waves and Rayleigh waves are slower than Love waves.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.

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