Rarefaction
Encyclopedia
Rarefaction is the reduction of a medium's density, or the opposite of compression.

A natural example of this is as a phase
Phase (waves)
Phase in waves is the fraction of a wave cycle which has elapsed relative to an arbitrary point.-Formula:The phase of an oscillation or wave refers to a sinusoidal function such as the following:...

in a sound
Sound
Sound is a mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing and of a level sufficiently strong to be heard, or the sensation stimulated in organs of hearing by such vibrations.-Propagation of...

wave or phonon
Phonon
In physics, a phonon is a collective excitation in a periodic, elastic arrangement of atoms or molecules in condensed matter, such as solids and some liquids...

. Half of a sound wave is made up of the compression of the medium
Transmission medium
A transmission medium is a material substance that can propagate energy waves...

, and the other half is the decompression or rarefaction of the medium.

Another natural example of rarefaction is in the layers of Earth's atmosphere
Earth's atmosphere
The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention , and reducing temperature extremes between day and night...

. Because what constitutes the atmosphere has mass
Mass
Mass can be defined as a quantitive measure of the resistance an object has to change in its velocity.In physics, mass commonly refers to any of the following three properties of matter, which have been shown experimentally to be equivalent:...

, most of the atmospheric matter
Matter
Matter is a general term for the substance of which all physical objects consist. Typically, matter includes atoms and other particles which have mass. A common way of defining matter is as anything that has mass and occupies volume...

will be nearer to the Earth. Therefore, air at higher layers of the atmosphere is less dense, or is rarefied, in relation to air at lower layers.

Rarefaction can be easily observed by compressing a spring
Spring (device)
A spring is an elastic object used to store mechanical energy. Springs are usually made out of spring steel. Small springs can be wound from pre-hardened stock, while larger ones are made from annealed steel and hardened after fabrication...

and releasing it. Rarefaction waves expand with time; for most gases the rarefaction wave keeps the same overall profile at all times (it is a 'self-similar expansion'). Each part of the wave travels at the local speed of sound, in the local medium. This expansion behaviour is in contrast to the behaviour of pressure increases, which get narrower with time, until they steepen into shock wave
Shock wave
A shock wave is a type of propagating disturbance. Like an ordinary wave, it carries energy and can propagate through a medium or in some cases in the absence of a material medium, through a field such as the electromagnetic field...

s.

Rarefaction can refer to an area of low relative pressure following a shock wave.