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The refraction of sound in hot and cold air

The speed of sound is greater in hot air than it is in cold air. This is because the molecules of air are
moving faster and the vibrations of the sound wave can therefore be transmitted faster.

This means that when sound travels from hot air to cold air or from cold air to hot air it will refract.

You can notice this on a hot day or a cold night.

On a hot day the air near the ground is hot so the sound wave bends upwards from the hot air into
the cold air (Figure 1).

On a cold night the air near the ground is cold and so the sound wave bends downwards. (Figure 2)
This is why you can sometimes hear sounds from a long way away if the night air is cold.
I noticed a very interesting effect produced by the change of speed of sound in air of different
temperatures when I was singing in a carol service in Wells Cathedral in Somerset in the UK.

It was a clear starry night and the great stone walls of the cathedral were cold. At the end of one of
the choir pieces the sound travelled away into the darkness of the building and a moment later I
heard the echo as the sound reflected from the walls. The echo was not only quieter - it was flat. The
pitch of the note had gone down.

After much thought I decided that this was because it had travelled through more cold air than hot
air on its way to the walls and back and so had slowed down, therefore reducing the pitch. However
the reflected path and the transmitted path are the same length and so the effects should cancel so I
still can't really explain it fully. Has anyone any better suggestions?

Does sound travel faster in warm or cold air?

I was asked this by the principal of a school I was visiting during Science Week last
year. I gave him the short answer… it travels faster through warm air.
Technically that is correct.. it does travel faster through warm air… the molecules in
the warm air are more “excited” and will vibrate more easily. Sound needs vibration
in order to work so the sound is carried more easily through the air with the more
excited molecules than through air with more “still” molecules (cold air).

A good way to think of it is to imagine a line of dominoes. The air molecules are the
Sound makes air molecules around the source vibrate and hit off the next molecule
which vibrates and hits of the next (just like the dominoes hitting off each other) and
the chain keeps going until the sound reaches your ear… and then the vibrations get
carried on to your middle and inner ear until they are changed to electrical pulses
that are sent to the brain!
And there was me thinking I was keeping this simple… back to the dominoes… just
keep thinking of it like a string of dominoes. Actually that is not quite true…. for the
domino model to really mimic the movement of sound you have to arrange the
dominoes in concentric circles, not in straight lines. Sound travels outwards from the
source in all directions.
So there you have it sound does travel faster in warm air BUT it may appear to
travel farther in cold air.
This is how that works…
…if the air close to the ground is colder than the air above it then sound waves
travelling upwards will be bent downwards. This is called Refraction. These
refracted sound waves can act to amplify the sound to someone standing far away.

Refraction of sound waves amplifies and focuses the sound so that it can be heard from
farther away
Reflection, Refraction, and Diffraction
Interference and Beats
The Doppler Effect and Shock Waves
Boundary Behavior
Reflection, Refraction, and Diffraction
Like any wave, a sound wave doesn't just stop when it reaches the end of the medium or when it
encounters an obstacle in its path. Rather, a sound wave will undergo certain behaviors when it
encounters the end of the medium or an obstacle. Possible behaviors include reflection off the
obstacle, diffraction around the obstacle, and transmission (accompanied by refraction) into the
obstacle or new medium. In this part of Lesson 3, we will investigate behaviors that have already
been discussed in a previous unit and apply them towards the reflection, diffraction, and refraction
of sound waves.

Reflection and Transmission of Sound

When a wave reaches the boundary between one medium another medium, a portion of
the wave undergoes reflection and a portion of the wave undergoes transmission across the
boundary. As discussed in the previous part of Lesson 3, the amount of
reflection is dependent upon the dissimilarity of the two media. For this
reason, acoustically minded builders of auditoriums and concert halls
avoid the use of hard, smooth materials in the construction of their
inside halls. A hard material such as concrete is as dissimilar as can be to
the air through which the sound moves; subsequently, most of the sound
wave is reflected by the walls and little is absorbed. Walls and ceilings of concert halls are
made softer materials such as fiberglass and acoustic tiles. These materials are more similar
to air than concrete and thus have a greater ability to absorb sound. This gives the room
more pleasing acoustic properties.
- But reflection of sound waves in auditoriums and concert halls do not always lead to
displeasing results, especially if the reflections are designed right. Smooth walls have a
tendency to direct sound waves in a specific direction. Subsequently the use of smooth walls
in an auditorium will cause spectators to receive a large amount of sound from one location
along the wall; there would be only one possible path by which sound waves could travel
from the speakers to the listener. The auditorium would not seem to be as lively and full of
sound. Rough walls tend to diffuse sound, reflecting it in a variety of directions. This allows a
spectator to perceive sounds from every part of the room, making it seem lively and full. For
this reason, auditorium and concert hall designers prefer construction materials that are
rough rather than smooth.
Reflection of sound waves also leads to echoes. Echoes are different than reverberations.
Echoes occur when a reflected sound wave reaches the ear more than 0.1 seconds after the
original sound wave was heard. If the elapsed time between the arrivals of the two sound
waves is more than 0.1 seconds, then the sensation of the first sound will have died out. In
this case, the arrival of the second sound wave will be perceived as a second sound rather
than the prolonging of the first sound. There will be an echo instead of a reverberation.
Reflection of sound waves off of surfaces is also affected by the shape of the surface. As
mentioned of water waves in Unit 10, flat or plane surfaces reflect sound waves in such a
way that the angle at which the wave approaches the surface equals the angle at which the
wave leaves the surface. This principle will be extended to the reflective behavior of light
waves off of plane surfaces in great detail in Unit 13 of The Physics Classroom. Reflection of
sound waves off of curved surfaces leads to a more interesting phenomenon. Curved
surfaces with a parabolic shape have the habit of focusing sound waves to a point. Sound
waves reflecting off of parabolic surfaces concentrate all their energy to a single point in
space; at that point, the sound is amplified. Perhaps you have seen a museum exhibit that
utilizes a parabolic-shaped disk to collect a large amount of sound and focus it at a focal
point. If you place your ear at the focal point, you can hear even the faintest whisper of a
friend standing across the room. Parabolic-shaped satellite disks use this same principle of
reflection to gather large amounts of electromagnetic waves and focus it at a point (where
the receptor is located). Scientists have recently discovered some evidence that seems to
reveal that a bull moose utilizes his antlers as a satellite disk to gather and focus sound.
Finally, scientists have long believed that owls are equipped with spherical facial disks that
can be maneuvered in order to gather and reflect sound towards their ears. The reflective
behavior of light waves off curved surfaces will be studies in great detail in Unit 13 of The
Physics Classroom Tutorial.

Diffraction of Sound Waves

Diffraction involves a change in direction of waves as they pass through an opening or
around a barrier in their path. The diffraction of water waves was discussed in Unit 10 of
The Physics Classroom Tutorial. In that unit, we saw that water waves have the ability to
travel around corners, around obstacles and through openings. The amount of diffraction
(the sharpness of the bending) increases with increasing wavelength and decreases with
decreasing wavelength. In fact, when the wavelength of the wave is smaller than the
obstacle or opening, no noticeable diffraction occurs.
Diffraction of sound waves is commonly observed; we notice sound
diffracting around corners or through door openings, allowing us to hear
others who are speaking to us from adjacent rooms. Many forest-dwelling
birds take advantage of the diffractive ability of long-wavelength sound
waves. Owls for instance are able to communicate across long distances
due to the fact that their long-wavelength hoots are able to diffract
around forest trees and carry farther than the short-wavelength tweets of
songbirds. Low-pitched (long wavelength) sounds always carry further than high-pitched
(short wavelength) sounds.
Refraction of Sound Waves
Refraction of waves involves a change in the direction of waves as they pass from one
medium to another. Refraction, or bending of the path of the waves, is accompanied by a
change in speed and wavelength of the waves. So if the media (or its properties) are
changed, the speed of the wave is changed. Thus, waves passing from one medium to
another will undergo refraction. Refraction of sound waves is most evident in situations in
which the sound wave passes through a medium with gradually varying properties. For
example, sound waves are known to refract when traveling over water. Even though the
sound wave is not exactly changing media, it is traveling
through a medium with varying properties; thus, the wave will
encounter refraction and change its direction. Since water has
a moderating effect upon the temperature of air, the air
directly above the water tends to be cooler than the air far
above the water. Sound waves travel slower in cooler air than they do in warmer air. For
this reason, the portion of the wavefront directly above the water is slowed down, while the
portion of the wavefronts far above the water speeds ahead. Subsequently, the direction of
the wave changes, refracting downwards towards the water. This is depicted in the diagram
at the right.
Refraction of other waves such as light waves will be discussed in more detail in a later unit
of The Physics Classroom Tutorial.

3 seconds of acoustic reverberation demonstrated by clapping in an
underground carpark ...more clapping

Short sample of reverberation effect

Clean signal, followed by different versions of reverberation (with longer and
longer decay times).
Problems playing this file? See media help.
Reverberation, in psychoacoustics and acoustics, is a persistence of sound after
the sound is produced.[1] A reverberation, or reverb, is created when a sound
or signal is reflected causing a large number of reflections to build up and then
decay as the sound is absorbed by the surfaces of objects in the space – which
could include furniture, people, and air.[2] This is most noticeable when the
sound source stops but the reflections continue, decreasing in amplitude, until
they reach zero amplitude.

Reverberation is frequency dependent: the length of the decay, or

reverberation time, receives special consideration in the architectural design of
spaces which need to have specific reverberation times to achieve optimum
performance for their intended activity.[3] In comparison to a distinct echo,
that is detectable at a minimum of 50 to 100 ms after the previous sound,
reverberation is the occurrence of reflections that arrive in a sequence of less
than approximately 50 ms. As time passes, the amplitude of the reflections
gradually reduces to non-noticeable levels. Reverberation is not limited to
indoor spaces as it exists in forests and other outdoor environments where
reflection exists.

Reverberation occurs naturally when a person sings, talks, or plays an

instrument acoustically in a hall or performance space with sound-reflective
surfaces.[4] The sound of reverberation is often electronically added to the
vocals of singers and to musical instruments. This is done in both live sound
systems and sound recordings by using effects units. Effects units that are
specialized in the generation of the reverberation effect are commonly called

Colours of light
Light is made up of wavelengths of
light, and each wavelength is a
particular colour. The colour we see is
a result of which wavelengths are
reflected back to our eyes.

The visible spectrum

The visible spectrum showing the
wavelengths of each of the
component colours. The spectrum
ranges from dark red at 700 nm to
violet at 400 nm.
Visible light
Visible light is the small part within the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are sensitive to
and can detect.
Visible light waves consist of different wavelengths. The colour of visible light depends on its
wavelength. These wavelengths range from 700 nm at the red end of the spectrum to 400 nm at the
violet end.
Visible light
Visible light waves are the only
electromagnetic waves we can
see. We see these waves as the
colours of the rainbow. Each
colour has a different
wavelength. Red has the longest
wavelength, and violet has the
shortest wavelength. When all
the waves are seen together, they
make white light.
Image acknowledgement :
Delcreations, 123RF Ltd
White light is actually made of all of the colours of the rainbow because it contains all wavelengths,
and it is described as polychromatic light. Light from a torch or the Sun is a good example of this.
Light from a laser is monochromatic, which means it only produces one colour. (Lasers are extremely
dangerous and can cause permanent eye damage. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that light
from a laser never enters someone’s eyes.)
Colour of objects
Objects appear different colours
because they absorb some
colours (wavelengths) and
reflected or transmit other
colours. The colours we see are
the wavelengths that are
reflected or transmitted.
For example, a red shirt looks
red because the dye molecules
in the fabric have absorbed the
wavelengths of light from the
violet/blue end of the spectrum.
Red light is the only light that is
reflected from the shirt. If only
blue light is shone onto a red
shirt, the shirt would appear
black, because the blue would
be absorbed and there would be no red light to be reflected.
White objects appear white because they reflect all colours. Black objects absorb all colours so no
light is reflected.

Red shirt and blue shorts

Why does the shirt look red and the shorts blue? The shirt looks red because the shirt absorbs the
other colours and only reflects red waves. The blue shorts reflect blue and absorb green, yellow and
Colour detection
The retina of our eyes contains two types of photoreceptors – rods and cones. The cones detect
colour. The rods only let us see things in black, white and grey. Our cones only work when the light is
bright enough, but not when light is very dim. This is why things look grey and we cannot see colours
at night when the light is dim.
How the eye works
Associate Professor Gordon Sanderson explains how the eye works, focusing on the receptors
located in the retina at the back of the eye.
There are three types of cones in the human eye that are sensitive to short (S), medium (M) and long
(L) wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. (These cones have traditionally been known as blue-
sensitive, green-sensitive and red-sensitive, but as each cone is actually responsive to a range of
wavelengths, the S, M and L labels are more accepted now.)
These three types of colour receptor allow the brain to perceive signals from the retina as different
colours. Some estimate that humans are able to distinguish about 10 million colours.
Mixing colours
The primary colours of light are red, green and blue. Mixing these colours in different proportions
can make all the colours of the light we see. This is how TV and computer screens work. If you look
at a screen with a magnifying glass you will be able to see that only these three colours are being
used. For example, red and green lights are used to make our brain perceive the image as yellow.
When coloured lights are mixed together, it is called additive mixing. Red, green and blue are the
primary colours for additive mixing. If all of these colours of light are shone onto a screen at the
same time, you will see white.

Colour mixing
The results of mixing red, green and blue
coloured light compared to the mixing of
magenta, cyan and yellow paint are
This is different when you are mixing
paints. Each colour of paint is absorbing
certain colours and reflecting others. Each
time another colour of paint is mixed in,
there are more colours absorbed and less
are reflected. The primary colours for
adding paints or dyes, such as for a
computer printer, are yellow, magenta
and cyan. If you mix all of these colours
together, you will absorb all the light and will only see black, because no light will be reflected back
to your eyes.
You can easily experiment with this. Hold some coloured cellophane in front of your eyes and have a
look around. Notice how some colours are changed and others look similar. Figure out which colours
are being absorbed.
Nature of science
It sometimes takes a long time for new scientific knowledge to become widespread. For example,
many people used to think that dogs could only see in black and white. It is now known that dogs
have two kinds of colour receptors that allow them to see yellows and purples. Even though the
initial experiment was done in 1989, many people are still unaware that dogs can see some colours.
Different types of Faults
A close look at faults helps geologists to understand how the tectonic plates have moved relative to
one another.

Types of movement of crustal blocks that can occur along faults during an earthquake:

©Redrawn from University of Otago (Richard Sibson)

1. Where the crust is being pulled apart, normal

faulting occurs, in which the overlying (hanging-wall)
block moves down with respect to the lower (foot wall)

2. Where the crust is being compressed, reverse

faulting occurs, in which the hanging-wall block moves
up and over the footwall block – reverse slip on a gently
inclined plane is referred to as thrust faulting.

3. Crustal blocks may also move sideways past each

other, usually along nearly-vertical faults. This ‘strike-
slip’ movement is described as sinistral when the far
side moves to the left, and dextral, when the far side
moves to the right.

4. An oblique slip involves various combinations of these basic movements, as in the 1855
Wairarapa Fault rupture, which included both reverse and dextral movement. (COM pg. 100).

Faults can be as short as a few metres and as long as 1000km. The fault rupture from an earthquake
isn’t always a straight or continuous line. Sometimes there can be short offsets between parts of the
fault, and even major faults can have large bends in them.

Visual Glossary
Earthquake-A sudden ground motion or vibration
produced by a rapid release of stored-up energy.

Epicenter-The point on the Earth's surface located

directly above the focus of an earthquake.

Focus-The location where the earthquake begins. The

ground ruptures at this spot, then seismic waves
radiate outward in all directions.

How do earthquakes generate tsunamis?
By far, the most destructive tsunamis are generated from
large, shallow earthquakes with an epicenter or fault line near
or on the ocean floor. These usually occur in regions of the
earth characterized by tectonic subduction along tectonic plate
boundaries. The high seismicity of such regions is caused by
the collision of tectonic plates. When these plates move past
each other, they cause large earthquakes, which tilt, offset, or
displace large areas of the ocean floor from a few kilometers to
as much as a 1,000 km or more. The sudden vertical
displacements over such large areas, disturb the ocean's
surface, displace water, and generate destructive tsunami
waves. The waves can travel great distances from the source
region, spreading destruction along their path. For example,
the Great 1960 Chilean tsunami was generated by a magnitude
9.5 earthquake that had a rupture zone of over 1,000 km. Its
waves were destructive not only in Chile, but also as far away
as Hawaii, Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific. It should be
noted that not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. Usually, it
takes an earthquake with a Richter magnitude exceeding 7.5 to
produce a destructive tsunami.
Most tsunamis are generated by shallow, great earthquakes at
subductions zones. More than 80% of the world's tsunamis occur in the
Pacific along its Ring of Fire subduction zones.

When a great earthquake ruptures, the faulting can

cause vertical slip that is large enough to disturb the
overlying ocean, thus generating a tsunami that will
travel outwards in all directions.

What is the difference between an

asteroid and a comet?
The main difference between asteroids and comets is their
composition, as in, what they are made of. Asteroids are made up of
metals and rocky material, while comets are made up of ice, dust and
rocky material. Both asteroids and comets were formed early in the
history of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Asteroids
formed much closer to the Sun, where it was too warm for ices to
remain solid. Comets formed farther from the Sun where ices would
not melt. Comets which approach the Sun lose material with each
orbit because some of their ice melts and vaporizes to form a tail.

A comet is an icy small Solar System body that, when passing
close to the Sun, warms and begins to release gases, a
process called outgassing. This produces a visible atmosphere
or coma, and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are
due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind acting
upon the nucleus of the comet. Comet nuclei range from a
few hundred metres to tens of kilometres across and are
composed of loose collections of ice, dust, and small rocky
particles. The coma may be up to 15 times the Earth's
diameter, while the tail may stretch one astronomical unit. If
sufficiently bright, a comet may be seen from the Earth
without the aid of a telescope and may subtend an arc of 30°
(60 Moons) across the sky. Comets have been observed and
recorded since ancient times by many cultures

Asteroids are small, rocky objects that orbit the sun.

Although asteroids orbit the sun like planets, they are
much smaller than planets.

A typhoon is a violent tropical cyclone, in meteorological

term, which is a low pressure system occurring in
tropical oceans. The winds above the ground circulate
around the center counterclockwise for a typhoon
occurring in the northern hemisphere and clockwise for
that occurring in the southern hemisphere. As for the
origin of the name, "typhoon" is generally believed to be
a phonetic derivation from the Cantonese pronunciation
for "windy". But according to the study of Professor
Shao-hao Lin, it is probably a phonetic derivation from
the Southern Fukienese pronunciation for "phoon-ty"
(wind sieve). As Ding-mei Lu stated in his revised
Taiwan County Annals, "The so-called typhoon was a
term used by native residents of Taiwan as symbolic
description of the phenomenon of hurricanes storming
around like a wind sieving the rain. The term was then
phonetically transcribed into Chinese characters but
misused in reverse order and later evolved into the term
"typhoon". As of today, the Southern Fukienese for
typhoon is still pronounced like "phoon-ty" (wind sieve),
which further solidifies Professor Lin's argument. Aside
from the digression of being either "windy" or "wind
sieving", typhoon is a violent tropical cyclone over the
tropical Western North Pacific.

A typhoon is a violent tropical cyclone, in meteorological

term, which is a low pressure system occurring in
tropical oceans. The winds above the ground circulate
around the center counterclockwise for a typhoon
occurring in the northern hemisphere and clockwise for
that occurring in the southern hemisphere. As for the
origin of the name, "typhoon" is generally believed to be
a phonetic derivation from the Cantonese pronunciation
for "windy". But according to the study of Professor
Shao-hao Lin, it is probably a phonetic derivation from
the Southern Fukienese pronunciation for "phoon-ty"
(wind sieve). As Ding-mei Lu stated in his revised
Taiwan County Annals, "The so-called typhoon was a
term used by native residents of Taiwan as symbolic
description of the phenomenon of hurricanes storming
around like a wind sieving the rain. The term was then
phonetically transcribed into Chinese characters but
misused in reverse order and later evolved into the term
"typhoon". As of today, the Southern Fukienese for
typhoon is still pronounced like "phoon-ty" (wind sieve),
which further solidifies Professor Lin's argument. Aside
from the digression of being either "windy" or "wind
sieving", typhoon is a violent tropical cyclone over the
tropical Western North Pacific.
Tropical storms, hurricanes, cyclones and

Definition and

Tropical storms,
hurricanes and
typhoons, although named
differently, describe the same
disaster type.

Essentially, these disaster types refer to a large scale closed circulation system in the
atmosphere which combines low pressure and strong winds that rotate counter clockwise in
the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

The system is referred to as a "cyclone" in the Indian Ocean and and South
Pacific, "hurricane" in the Western Atlantic and Eastern Pacific and "typhoon" in the
Western Pacific.

Hurricanes and typhoons are the same storm types as "tropical cyclones"(the local name for
storms which originate in the Caribbean and China Sea region respectively).
A tropical cyclone is a non-frontal storm system that is characterised by a low pressure
center, spiral rain bands and strong winds. Usually it originates over tropical or subtropical
waters and rotates clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the
northern hemisphere. The system is fueled by heat released when moist air rises and the
water vapor it contains condenses ("warm core" storm system). Therefore the water
temperature must be >27 °C.
Cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons can be predicted several days in advance. The onset is
extensive and often very destructive. These disasters are usually more destructive than
First, in a sudden, brief onslaught, high winds cause major damage to infrastructure and
housing, in particular fragile constructions. They are generally followed by heavy rains and
floods and, in flat coastal areas, by tidal waves.
In the case of cyclones, accurate landfall predictions can give only a few hours' notice to
threatened populations. In addition, people generally opt to wait until the very last minute
before abandoning their home and possessions. Deaths from drowning in the high tides and
sudden flooding and material losses are therefore often very high.