Seismic waves are waves of energy that travel through the earth, and are a result of an earthquake, explosion, or a volcano that imparts low-frequency acoustic energy. Many other natural and anthropogenic sources create low amplitude waves commonly referred to as ambient vibrations. Seismic waves are studied by seismologists and geophysicists. Seismic wave fields are measured by a seismograph, geophone, hydrophone (in water), or accelerometer.
The propagation velocity of the waves depends on density and elasticity of the medium. Velocity tends to increase with depth, and ranges from approximately 2 to 8 km/s in the Earth's crust up to 13 km/s in the deep mantle.
Earthquakes create various types of waves with different velocities; when reaching seismic observatories, their different travel time enables the scientists to locate the epicenter. In geophysics the refraction or reflection of seismic waves is used for research of the Earth's interior, and artificial vibrations to investigate subsurface structures.
Types of seismic waves
There are two types of seismic waves, body wave and surface waves.
Body waves travel through the interior of the Earth. They follow raypaths refracted by the varying density and modulus (stiffness) of the Earth's interior. The density and modulus, in turn, vary according to temperature, composition, and phase. This effect is similar to the refraction of light waves.
Primary waves (P-waves) are compressional waves that are longitudinal in nature. P waves are pressure waves that are the initial set of waves produced by an earthquake. These waves can travel through any type of material, and can travel at nearly twice the speed of S waves. In air, they take the form of sound waves, hence they travel at the speed of sound. Typical speeds are 330 m/s in air, 1450 m/s in water and about 5000 m/s in granite.
Secondary waves (S-waves) are shear waves that are transverse in nature. These waves typically follow P waves during an earthquake and displace the ground perpendicular to the direction of propagation. Depending on the propagational direction, the wave can take on different surface characteristics; for example, in the case of horizontally polarized S waves, the ground moves alternately to one side and then the other. S waves can travel only through solids, as fluids (liquids and gases) do not support shear stresses. S waves are slower than P waves, and speeds are typically around 10% of that of P waves in any given material.
Surface waves are analogous to water waves and travel along the Earth's surface. They travel slower than body waves. Because of their low frequency, long duration, and large amplitude, they can be the most destructive type of seismic wave. There are two types of surface waves: Rayleigh waves and Love waves.
Rayleigh waves, also called ground roll, are surface waves that travel as ripples with motions that are similar to those of waves on the surface of water (note, however, that the associated particle motion at shallow depths is retrograde, and that the restoring force in Rayleigh and in other seismic waves is elastic, not gravitational as for water waves). The existence of these waves was predicted by John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh, in 1885. They are slower than body waves, roughly 90% of the velocity of S waves for typical homogeneous elastic media.
Love waves (L-waves) are surface waves that cause circular shearing of the ground. They are named after A.E.H. Love, a British mathematician who created a mathematical model of the waves in 1911. They usually travel slightly faster than Rayleigh waves, about 90% of the S wave velocity, and have the largest amplitude.
P and S waves in Earth's mantle and core
When an earthquake occurs, seismographs near the epicenter are able to record both P and S waves, but those at a greater distance no longer detect the high frequencies of the first S wave. Since shear waves cannot pass through liquids, this phenomenon was original evidence for the now well-established observation that the Earth has a liquid outer core, as demonstrated by Richard Dixon Oldham. This kind of observation has also been used to argue, by seismic testing, that the Moon has a solid core, although recent geodetic studies suggest the core is still molten.
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