Open main menu
Plane shear wave
Propagation of a spherical S-wave in a 2d grid (empirical model)

In seismology, S-waves, secondary waves, or shear waves (sometimes called an elastic S-wave) are a type of elastic wave, and are one of the two main types of elastic body waves, so named because they move through the body of an object, unlike surface waves.[1]

The S-wave is a transverse wave, meaning that, in the simplest situation, the oscillations of the particles of the medium is perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation, and the main restoring force comes from shear stress.[2]

The shadow zone of a P-wave. S-waves don't penetrate the outer core, so they're shadowed everywhere more than 104° away from the epicenter (from USGS)

Its name, S for secondary, comes from the fact that it is the second direct arrival on an earthquake seismogram, after the compressional primary wave, or P-wave, because S-waves travel slower in rock. Unlike the P-wave, the S-wave cannot travel through the molten outer core of the Earth, and this causes a shadow zone for S-waves opposite to where they originate. They can still appear in the solid inner core: when a P-wave strikes the boundary of molten and solid cores at an oblique angle, S-waves will form and propagate in the solid medium. When these S-waves hit the boundary again at an oblique angle they will in turn create P-waves that propagate through the liquid medium. This property allows seismologists to determine some physical properties of the inner core.[3]


In 1830, the mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson presented to the French Academy of Sciences an essay ("memoir") with a theory of the propagation of elastic waves in solids. In his memoir, he states that an earthquake would produce two different waves: one having a certain speed a and the other having a speed a/3. At a sufficient distance from the source, when they can be considered plane waves in the region of interest, the first kind consists of expansions and compressions in the direction perpendicular to the wavefront (that is, parallel to the wave's direction of motion); while the second consists of stretching motions occurring in directions parallel to the front (perpendicular to the direction of motion).[4]


Isotropic mediumEdit

For the purpose of this explanation, a solid medium is considered isotropic if its strain (deformation) in response to stress is the same in all directions. Let   be the displacement vector of a particle of such a medium from its "resting" position   due elastic vibrations, understood to be a function of the rest position   and time  . The deformation of the medium at that point can be described the strain tensor  , the 3×3 matrix whose elements are


where   denotes partial derivative with respect to position coordinate  . The strain tensor is related to the 3×3 stress tensor   by the equation


Here   is the Kronecker delta (1 if  , 0 otherwise) and   and   are the Lamé parameters (  being the material's shear modulus). It follows that


From Newton's law of inertia, one also gets


where   is the density (mass per unit volume) of the medium at that point, and   denotes partial derivative with respect to time. Combining the last two equations one gets the seismic wave equation in homogeneous media


Using the nabla operator notation of vector calculus,  , with some approximations, this equation can be written as


Taking the curl of this equation and applying vector identities, one gets


This formula is the wave equation applied to the vector quantity  , which is the material's shear strain. Its solutions, the S-waves, are linear combinations of sinusoidal plane waves of various wavelengths and directions of propagation, but all with the same speed  

Taking the divergence of seismic wave equation in homogeneous media, instead of the curl, yields a wave equation describing propagation of the quantity  , which is the material's compression strain. The solutions of this equation, the P-waves, travel at the speed   that is more than twice the speed   of S-waves.

The steady-state SH waves are defined by the Helmholtz equation[5]


where k is the wave number.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ What are seismic waves? UPSeis at Michigan Tech
  2. ^ S wave US Geological Survey
  3. ^ University of Illinois at Chicago (17 July 1997). "Lecture 16 Seismographs and the earth's interior". Archived from the original on 7 May 2002. Retrieved 8 June 2010.
  4. ^ Poisson, S. D. (1831), "Mémoire sur la propagation du mouvement dans les milieux élastiques" (Memoir on the propagation of motion in elastic media). Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France, volume 10, pages 549–605. From p.595: "On verra aisément que cet ébranlement donnera naissance à deux ondes sphériques qui se propageront uniformément, l'une avec une vitesse a, l'autre avec une vitesse b ou a/3" ... From p.602: ... "à une grande distance de l'ébranlement primitif, et lorsque les ondes mobiles sont devenues sensiblement planes dans chaque partie très-petite par rapport à leurs surfaces entières, il ne subsiste plus que des vitesses propres des molécules, normales ou parallèles à ces surfaces ; les vitesses normal ayant lieu dans les ondes de la première espèce, où elles sont accompagnées de dilations qui leur sont proportionnelles, et les vitesses parallèles appartenant aux ondes de la seconde espèce, où elles ne sont accompagnées d'aucune dilatation ou condensation de volume, mais seulement de dilatations et de condensations linéaires."
  5. ^ Sheikhhassani, Ramtin (2013). "Scattering of a plane harmonic SH wave by multiple layered inclusions". Wave Motion. 51 (3): 517–532. doi:10.1016/j.wavemoti.2013.12.002.

Further readingEdit