Both man and machine are approaching the future at an ever-accelerating clip. Almost every year, our vehicles break speed records. This past fall, the X-43A scramjet-powered aircraft reached a speed of nearly Mach 10, beating a record of Mach 6.8 set only six months before. Today’s fastest supercomputer, IBM’s Blue Gene, is about 450,000 times as speedy as the ruling machine of 30 years ago and twice as fleet as the fastest machine of just one year ago. We build passenger trains that travel 267 miles an hour and rocket cars that break the speed of sound. Meanwhile, improvements in training and physiological understanding allow us to surpass our own physical-performance benchmarks in record time, and technological advances make it possible to more accurately measure the breakneck speeds achieved in nature. Hold on to your seat—we’re not slowing down anytime soon.
Pacific Plate: World’s Fastest Tectonic Plate
Drifting northwest at the lightning pace of four inches a year, the Pacific Plate, which stretches from California to Japan below the ocean floor, clocks in at 24 times as fast as the slowest of the dozen rocky sheets that compose the Earth’s crust.
Alexander Popov: World’s Fastest Swimmer
Popov swam the 50-meter freestyle in 21.64 seconds at the summer 2000 Russian national championships. The 6'6" swimmer’s disproportionately large feet enable his tremendous kick.
Bamboo: World’s fastest-growing plant
Bamboo grows up to three feet a day, more than 30 percent faster than any other plant. Parenchymal cells within the stem divide at a rapid rate to provide structural support for the woody grass. The result? Bamboo has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any plant species.
Secretariat: World’s fastest thoroughbred
In the 1973 Kentucky Derby,
Secretariat set a record that has remained unbroken for 30 years. Autopsy records show that the horse’s heart weighed a hefty 21 pounds, three times the average for a thoroughbred his size.
Qori Kalis: World’s fastest-receding tropical glacier
Qori Kalis, a glacier that lies at above 18,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, is melting at a rate of nearly 700 feet a year. In 2002, Ohio State University paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson discovered a perfectly preserved Distichia muscoides, a moss-type plant that carbon dating measured as 5,200 years old, on the Qori Kalis. “The find was remarkable,” he says. “This tells us the glacier hasn’t been this small for more than 5,000 years.”
Part of the 17-square-mile Quelccaya, the world’s largest tropical ice sheet, the Qori Kalis is now shrinking 40 times as fast as rates witnessed in the mid-1970s, when Thompson first traveled there. “We’re seeing an exponential acceleration in the melting trend,” he says, noting that every tropical glacier studied with time-lapse photography is melting. By current rates of retreat, the entire Quelccaya will be gone in 50 years. If the world’s mountain glaciers melt completely, he says, the resulting half-meter rise in sea level would displace up to 100 million people in coastal areas around the globe.
The U.S.’s Fastest Recorded ...
Temperature Swing Loma, Montana saw a rise of 103˚F between January 14 and 15, 1972. The low was â€54˚, the high 49˚. The change was caused by a rapid shift in fronts: An arctic high-pressure system was replaced by milder westerly winds that warmed significantly as they moved east of the mountains. Rainfall Between July 25 and 26, 1979, tropical storm Claudette dropped 43 inches of rain near Alvin, Texas. Claudette’s proximity to the coast fed the system with moisture, boosting its strength as it formed a tight weather loop over southeastern Texas that ultimately caused $700 million in damage. Snowfall 75.8 inches of snow fell in Silver Lake, Colorado, between April 14 and 15, 1921. The more than six feet were dumped by a slow-moving storm system that rolled eastward over Silver Lake and was stalled by the bulk of the Rocky Mountains.