Apr 2022

Physics 101: 5 Real-Life Examples Of Surface Waves

April 19, 2022

Physics 101: 5 Real-Life Examples Of Surface Waves

Physics consists of various topics that come with complicated formulas and contexts. However, what many individuals do not realise is that these subjects are beyond what is written in a textbook or discussed by your teacher or physics tutor – most physics concepts can be applied in real life.

One of the more complicated topics covered in school is surface waves. But what are they, and how do these waves happen in the real world?

What is a surface wave?

Surface waves refer to the disturbances or waves that travel on a body’s surface. They are considered to be a combination of both longitudinal and transverse waves. Since the particles of transverse waves move perpendicularly and the particles of longitudinal waves move in a parallel direction, the particles of the medium where these waves travel tend to move in a circular direction.

What are the types of surface waves? 

There are two kinds of surface waves, namely:

1. Rayleigh waves

The first type – Rayleigh waves – is a type of surface wave that moves the particles of the medium in both vertical and horizontal directions along the vertical surface. This type of wave is deemed to be relatively slow compared to body waves. Rayleigh waves are named after the British physicist who was the first to demonstrate the existence of Rayleigh waves mathematically: Lord Rayleigh.

2. Love waves

Love waves are surface waves that move the medium’s particles along only the horizontal plane in the perpendicular direction of the wave propagation. Compared to Rayleigh waves, these waves yield a considerable amount of pressure on objects on the surface, such as tall buildings, by damaging the structure’s foundation.

Real-life examples of surface waves

Below are some examples of surface Waves and how it is applied in real life:

1. Water waves

When you throw a heavy object like a stone in the water, you might probably notice that ripples form on the water surface. Another instance is when diving into a body of water like a pool or the ocean causes these ripples to appear. These ripples are known as water waves and occur due to the disturbance caused on a still water surface which travels from one point to another.

2. Seismic waves

Seismic waves are caused by the sudden movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. They are a perfect example of surface waves because they exist on the earth’s surface and not inside the core. Relatedly, a seismograph is a tool created to record seismic waves.

3. Gravity waves

We all know that gravity is the force that holds objects in place and is responsible for them falling to the ground. This type of wave occurs within liquids and on the surface of fluids. Gravity waves are best observed as the waves that form when you look at the ocean.

4. Wind Waves

 Wind waves undertake the task of generating or forming surface waves. If you see large surfing waves on the surface of the ocean or sea, winds are what is responsible for it. This is because the wind that flows on the surface of the ocean tends to travel in the opposite direction to the water flow of the ocean, which results in substantial surface waves.

5. Electromagnetic waves

Some electromagnetic waves function just like surface waves. This can be seen when electromagnetic waves like radio waves propagate along the surface of the earth to communicate or exchange information between two points. Since the propagation of the wave is close to the earth’s surface, it is referred to as ground wave propagation.


Physics governs our everyday lives in a myriad of different ways, and the things that we thought were only relevant within the four walls of the classroom go way beyond that. The topic of surface waves may be a bit of a complex one, but once you understand its application in real-life, it starts to become a lot clearer.

If you would like to know more about waves in general or other interesting physics topics like the gravitational pull of black holes, Best Physics Tuition™ Centre is here to help! We offer O levels and H2 Physics tuition lessons for students seeking knowledge to excel in the subject. Contact us today to get started on your first lesson!

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