Differences between P waves, S waves, vs surface waves

Last Updated on March 19, 2022 by QCity Editorial Stuff

The earth’s surface is made up of many different types of materials including rock, soil, and sand. These materials are constantly moving and shifting due to the earth’s natural forces such as earthquakes. The movement that occurs in the material causes waves to form which we can measure using seismographs. There are three main types of seismic waves: P-waves (Primary), S-waves (Secondary), and Surface Waves (Love & Rayleigh). Each type has a distinct characteristic and is used for a specific purpose when studying an earthquake or other seismic activity. 

P waves are the first wave to reach a seismograph after an earthquake. These waves travel through the Earth’s interior and arrive at the seismograph before any other type of seismic wave. P waves can be further divided into two types: compressional (P) and shear (S). The difference between these two types is that P waves change shape as they move, whereas S waves do not. Surface Waves are the last kinds of seismic energy to arrive at a seismograph during an earthquake, but it does not mean that surface waves are unimportant! Surface waves cause most of the damage in earthquakes because they cause strong ground shaking for longer periods than body or other kinds of the surface wave.

Comparison between P waves, S waves, and surface waves

Parameters of ComparisonP waves, S wavessurface waves
FirstMore firstLess first
Type1st and 2nd typeThird type
EnergyMore energyLess energy
FlowFirst flow2nd flow

What are P waves, S waves?

There are two types of waves that can be observed during an earthquake: P-waves and S-waves. The two wave types have different characteristics which make them useful for determining what is happening in the subsurface. P-waves, or primary waves, pass through a medium faster than S-waves, or secondary waves. This means they travel more quickly over long distances and also penetrate deeper into the ground before they dissipate. These qualities make P-wave data ideal for locating earthquakes from large distances away because their arrival times are predictable based on distance traveled. On the other hand, S-waves tend to release information about how rock behaves at greater depths in the earth’s crust where it is difficult to reach with instruments like seismographs. 

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What are surface waves?

Surface waves are an important part of the ocean. They can be found in any body of water, including rivers and lakes. Surface waves move much slower than other types of a wave because they don’t travel very deep, but they still pack quite a punch when it comes to the damage they cause on shorelines. If you’ve ever been in a boat or kayak, you might have noticed that your vessel was rocked by what appears to be choppy waters out at sea – these are surface waves! The larger the body of water is, the larger the surface waves will be. The same goes for how shallow or deep that body of water is; deeper bodies of water will support smaller surface waves while shallower ones support bigger ones.

Surface waves are a type of wave that occurs when the water is disturbed on top of a body of water. These waves have been studied for centuries and it has been found that the surface waves can travel up to 100 meters in length, but only a few centimeters high. The most commonplace one would see these types of waves is on a lake or ocean, but they could also be caused by somebody throwing something into the water from the shoreline. 

There are three types of surface waves: solitary, short-crested, and long-crested. Solitary waves occur when there is an object on top of the water’s surface such as an island or boat dock while short-crested and long-crested happen when there is no object. 

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10 Differences between P waves, S waves, and surface waves?

1. P waves are the first to arrive at a seismometer.

2. S waves move slower than P waves and can cause more damage.

3. Surface waves come from two sources – one is called body waves, which move through the Earth’s interior; and surface shear, which occurs when rocks break and shift on the Earth’s surface.

4. Body wave energy moves in concentric circles while surface wave energy spreads out into a larger area.

5. A major difference between these three types of seismic waves is that they travel at different speeds.

6. The speed of an earthquake wave depends on how quickly it travels through different materials – for example, water or stone will slow down its speed considerably.

7. P waves are the first type of wave to be emitted from an earthquake.

8. S waves are the second type of wave to be emitted from an earthquake.

9. Surface waves are the third type of wave that is emitted during an earthquake.

10. Both surface and S waves can cause damage in homes, buildings, etc., depending on their intensity.

Interesting Statistics or Facts of P waves, S waves?

1. P waves are the fastest of all three types of waves.

2. S waves can travel through solids, liquids, and gases.

3. P waves cannot travel through a vacuum.

4. The amplitude of an earthquake varies depending on its distance from the observer.

5. Earthquakes in Japan usually have a magnitude between 7 and 8 while those in California tend to be smaller with magnitudes below 6 (magnitude = intensity).

6. The higher up you are when an earthquake happens, the greater your chances of dying from it.

Interesting Statistics or Facts of surface waves?

1. Surface waves are created by the wind and have a wavelength of about 100 meters.

2. The largest surface wave recorded was 2,000 meters long.

3. Surface waves can be as high as 20 feet tall.

4. There is a type of surface wave called a seiche that occurs when water levels in two different areas change at different rates.

5. When there is an earthquake or volcanic eruption, it can create large amounts of energy which causes huge amounts of ocean waves to form on the surface.

6. For these types of events to happen, they need certain conditions such as cold or warm air from one area meeting up with another area’s warmer or colder air.


Knowing the difference between P waves, S waves, and surface waves can help you better understand how earthquakes happen. This is important to know because an earthquake could be on its way! For instance, if you felt a long period of shaking followed by some quick jolts that didn’t seem like they were stopping after a while (and this was not your first earthquake), there has likely been or will soon be an eruption at one of the nearby volcanoes. It’s also crucial to note whether any intense rumbling sounds accompany these movements; in many cases, these are indicative of something more dangerous than just another quake. If you feel anything unusual happening while reading this article about P-waves vs. S-waves


Resource 01: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/1906calif/18april/earthwaves.php
Resource 02: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_wave#:~:text

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