In physics a free surface is the surface of a body that is subject to neither perpendicular normal stress nor parallel shear stress, such as the boundary between two homogenous fluids, for example liquid water and the air in the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike liquids, gases cannot form a free surface on their own.
A liquid in a gravitational field will form a free surface if unconfined from above. Under mechanical equilibrium this free surface must be perpendicular to the forces acting on the liquid; if not there would be a force along the surface, and the liquid would flow in that direction. Thus, on the surface of the Earth, all free surfaces of liquids are horizontal unless disturbed (except near solids dipping into them, where surface tension distorts the surface locally).
If the free surface of a liquid is disturbed, waves are produced on the surface. These waves are not elastic waves due to any elastic force; they are gravity waves caused by the force of gravity tending to bring the surface of the disturbed liquid back to its horizontal level, but due to momentum, it overshoots. Thus it oscillates and spreads the disturbance to the neighboring portions of the surface. The velocity of the surface waves varies as the square root of the wavelength if the liquid is deep; therefore long waves on the sea go faster than short ones. Very minute waves or ripples are not due to gravity but to capillary action, and have properties different from those of the longer ocean surface waves, because the surface is increased in area by the ripples and the capillary forces are in this case large compared with the gravitational forces.