Rayleigh waves are a type of surface acoustic wave that travel on solids. They can be produced in materials in many ways, such as by a localized impact or by piezo-electric transduction, and are frequently used in non-destructive testing for detecting defects. They are also produced on the Earth by earthquakes. When guided in layers they are referred to as Lamb waves, Rayleigh–Lamb waves, or generalized Rayleigh waves.
Rayleigh waves are a type of surface wave that travel near the surface of solids. Rayleigh waves include both longitudinal and transverse motions that decrease exponentially in amplitude as distance from the surface increases. There is a phase difference between these component motions.
The existence of Rayleigh waves was predicted in 1885 by Lord Rayleigh, after whom they were named. In isotropic solids these waves cause the surface particles to move in ellipses in planes normal to the surface and parallel to the direction of propagation – the major axis of the ellipse is vertical. At the surface and at shallow depths this motion is retrograde, that is the in-plane motion of a particle is counterclockwise when the wave travels from left to right. At greater depths the particle motion becomes prograde. In addition, the motion amplitude decays and the eccentricity changes as the depth into the material increases. The depth of significant displacement in the solid is approximately equal to the acoustic wavelength. Rayleigh waves are distinct from other types of acoustic waves such as Love waves or Lamb waves, both being types of guided wave in a layer, or longitudinal and shear waves, that travel in the bulk.
Rayleigh waves have a speed slightly less than shear waves by a factor dependent on the elastic constants of the material. The typical speed is of the order of 2–5 km/s. Since Rayleigh waves are confined near the surface, their in-plane amplitude when generated by a point source decays only as , where is the radial distance. Surface waves therefore decay more slowly with distance than do bulk waves, which spread out in three dimensions from a point source.
Rayleigh wave dispersion
The elastic constant often changes with depth, due to the properties of the material. This means the velocity of a Rayleigh wave is dependent on the wavelength (and therefore frequency), a phenomenon referred to as dispersion. Waves affected by dispersion have a different wave train shape. Rayleigh waves on ideal, homogeneous and flat elastic solids show no dispersion. However, if a solid or structure has a density or sound velocity that varies with depth, Rayleigh waves become dispersive. One example is Rayleigh waves on the Earth's surface: those waves with a higher frequency travel more slowly than those with a lower frequency. This occurs because a Rayleigh wave of lower frequency has a relatively long wavelength. The displacement of long wavelength waves penetrates more deeply into the Earth than short wavelength waves. Since the speed of waves in the Earth increases with increasing depth, the longer wavelength (low frequency) waves can travel faster than the shorter wavelength (high frequency) waves. Rayleigh waves thus often appear spread out on seismograms recorded at distant earthquake recording stations. It is also possible to observe Rayleigh wave dispersion in thin films or multi-layered structures.
Rayleigh waves in non-destructive testing
Rayleigh waves are widely used for materials characterization, to discover the mechanical and structural properties of the object being testing – like the presence of cracking, and the related shear modulus. This is in common with other types of surface waves. The Rayleigh waves used for this purpose are in the ultrasonic frequency range.
They are used at different length scales because they are easily generated and detected on the free surface of solid objects. Since they are confined in the vicinity of the free surface within a depth (~ the wavelength) linked to the frequency of the wave, different frequencies can be used for characterization at different length scales.
Rayleigh waves in geophysics
Rayleigh waves from earthquakes
Since Rayleigh waves are surface waves, the amplitude of such waves generated by an earthquake generally decreases exponentially with the depth of the hypocenter (focus). However, large earthquakes may generate Rayleigh waves that travel around the Earth several times before dissipating.
In seismology longitudinal and shear waves are known as P-waves and S-waves, respectively, and are termed body waves. Rayleigh waves are generated by the interaction of P- and S- waves at the surface of the earth, and travel with a velocity that is lower than the P-, S-, and Love wave velocities. Rayleigh waves emanating outward from the epicenter of an earthquake travel along the surface of the earth at about 10 times the speed of sound (0.340 km/s), in air, that is ~3 km/s.
Due to their higher speed, the P- and S-waves generated by an earthquake arrive before the surface waves. However, the particle motion of surface waves is larger than that of body waves, so the surface waves tend to cause more damage. In the case of Rayleigh waves, the motion is of a rolling nature, similar to an ocean surface wave. The intensity of Rayleigh wave shaking at a particular location is dependent on several factors:
- The size of the earthquake.
- The distance to the earthquake.
- The depth of the earthquake.
- The geologic structure of the crust.
- The focal mechanism of the earthquake.
- The rupture directivity of the earthquake.
Local geologic structure can serve to focus or defocus Rayleigh waves, leading to significant differences in shaking over short distances.
Rayleigh waves in seismology
Low frequency Rayleigh waves generated during earthquakes are used in seismology to characterise the Earth's interior. In intermediate ranges, Rayleigh waves are used in geophysics and geotechnical engineering for the characterisation of oil deposits. These applications are based on the geometric dispersion of Rayleigh waves and on the solution of an inverse problem on the basis of seismic data collected on the ground surface using active sources (falling weights, hammers or small explosions, for example) or by recording microtremors. Rayleigh ground waves are important also for environmental noise and vibration control since they make a major contribution to traffic-induced ground vibrations and the associated structure-borne noise in buildings.
Low frequency (< 20 Hz) Rayleigh waves are inaudible, yet they can be detected by many mammals, birds, insects and spiders. Human beings should be able to detect such Rayleigh waves through their Pacinian corpuscles, which are in the joints, although people do not seem to consciously respond to the signals. Some animals seem to use Rayleigh waves to communicate. In particular, some biologists theorize that elephants may use vocalizations to generate Rayleigh waves. Since Rayleigh waves decay slowly, they should be detectable over long distances. Note that these Rayleigh waves have a much higher frequency than Rayleigh waves generated by earthquakes.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake, some people have speculated that Rayleigh waves served as a warning to animals to seek higher ground, allowing them to escape the more slowly-traveling tsunami. At this time, evidence for this is mostly anecdotal. Other animal early warning systems may rely on an ability to sense infrasonic waves traveling through the air. 
- Surface acoustic wave
- Longitudinal wave
- Shear wave
- P wave
- Love wave
- Linear elasticity
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