What Are Seismic Waves

Fig. 1

In the broadest sense, seismic waves can be categorized into two major groups: body and surface waves (Fig. 1). Body waves propagate through the entire body, whereas surface waves travel along the surface of the medium. Seismic body waves include two different types according to the relative direction of disturbance with respect to the direction of propagation: P- and S-waves (Fig. 2). Seismic surface waves also include several different types, the Rayleigh wave being one (Fig. 2). Velocities of P- and S-waves (Vp and Vs) are determined by several aspects of a material called elastic constants (or moduli). If a material's shear modulus vanishes as with fluid, then only P-waves, not S-wave, can exist, and this special type of elastic wave is called acoustic waves. Velocities of surface waves are governed mainly by the shear modulus of materials. Seismic waves used for the survey can be generated in two ways: actively or passively. They can be generated actively by using an impact source like a sledgehammer or passively by natural (for example, tidal motion and thunder) and cultural (for example, traffic) activities. A seismic survey of the former type is called the active method, whereas the latter is called passive. Most seismic surveys historically implemented have been the active type.

Fig. 2. Two different types of body waves (P- and S-wave) and one type of surface (Rayleigh) wave.