Contrary to popular belief, Kansas not the flattest state

3/7/2014

By BRENDAN LYNCH

By BRENDAN LYNCH

KU News Service

LAWRENCE — It's time for some levelheaded talk about that ostensibly endless stretch of flatness some denigrate as "flyover country" and others respectfully call "Kansas."

The alleged monotony of the Sunflower State's terrain is referenced about as often as "The Wizard of Oz" when Kansas pops up into conversation.

"It's truly engrained," said Jerry Dobson, professor of geography at the University of Kansas. "Every Kansan hears again and again, when new visitors arrive, 'I'm surprised. This place is not as flat as I expected.' I've driven across the state from east to west with a GPS unit on my dash. The first two-thirds are hilly. The last one-third is truly flat, and that's the High Plains. The eastern part of Colorado is just as flat. Perhaps people forget the hilly part of Kansas and meld together the flat parts of Kansas and Colorado in their lasting memory."

Kansans got no relief when a tongue-in-cheek 2003 study published in the Annals of Improbable Research measured Kansas and determined its terrain to be flatter than an actual pancake from IHOP — a claim echoed in the national media. Now, Dobson finds, even Colorado is flatter than a pancake would be if expanded to the size of a state.

Such battering of Kansas' reputation falls flat under rigorous scientific scrutiny, which Dobson and KU colleague and Kansas native Josh Campbell carried out from atop Mount Oread, the imposing hill from which KU's campus overlooks the Kaw River valley.

"We're trying to simulate exactly how people perceive flatness when they stand in the middle of a large plain," said Dobson. "We imagined looking toward the horizon and seeing a rise of land to the height of a tall tree at three miles distance. Surely, anyone would believe that is truly flat. Then we devised a mathematical way of measuring the effect."

The KU researcher's method of reckoning flatness depended on "geomorphometric analysis" of the contiguous U.S., employing geographic software, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission elevation data and a new algorithm for measuring flatness.

"Geomorphometry refers to measuring earth shapes," Dobson said. "Geographers have all sorts of ways of measuring plains, hills and mountains. Most formulas start with elevation data, usually in the form of a regular grid. From that, we measure slope, relief, line of sight and other useful information."

Dobson and Campbell took the measure of 48 states plus the District of Columbia and ranked them for flatness.

The researchers first gridded the nation into 90-meter cells and categorized each cell as not flat, flat, flatter or flattest. Each state then was measured in terms of percentage flat, flatter and flattest as well as absolute area in each category.

And — guess what? Kansas didn't even crack the top five U.S. states for flatness. By any measure, Florida takes the prize for the flattest state in the nation because the highest point in the state is only 345 feet above sea level. Then Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota and Delaware follow. Kansas merely ranks seventh in flatness.

The findings appear in the current issue of the Geographical Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Geographical Society.

Dobson hopes the research will help dispel the myth that Kansas is so formidably flat.

"In 2012, I led the AGS' Geographic Knowledge and Values Survey," he said. "One of our questions was, 'What is the flattest state?' and we received more than 4,000 responses nationwide. The largest number of people — 33 percent — erroneously guessed that Kansas is the flattest state."

This misperception affects more than just Kansas pride, said the KU researcher. Seen as lacking in natural interest or beauty, the state suffers economically from an undeserved, dreary reputation.

"When I moved to Kansas in 2001, one of my friends told her husband where I was going, and he asked, 'What'd he do wrong?'" Dobson said. "That's how many people view Kansas from afar. Part of it comes from being distant in the big middle of the country, but more of it comes from the erroneous image of being totally flat and treeless. That affects recruiting people for jobs; many top candidates never apply simply because they think of Kansas as flat and boring."

Indeed, Kansas boasts the pristine Flint Hills, rolling Smoky Hills, Sandstone-capped Chautauqua Hills as well as Red Hills among its geographical treasures.

But perhaps the better tactic for Kansans could be picking on another Midwestern U.S. state that's far flatter than Kansas — like second-flattest Illinois.

"The long axis of Kansas runs east-west, and that's the way most people tend to drive across it," said Dobson. "Maybe folks get a bit flat-weary on that long drive. Conversely, Illinois' long axis is north-south. I drive across it a lot from St. Louis to Mount Vernon. It's extremely flat, but at least it's over pretty quick, and I'm OK with flat anyway."

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