Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kansas isn’t as flat as you think

By Jerome E. Dobson and Joshua S. Campbell

Which U. S. state is flattest? In a recent nationwide poll, 33 percent of respondents said Kansas and 23 percent said Florida.

Florida is correct by any measure. Its highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, so no local view can have much relief. Yet 77 percent of all national respondents, including 62 percent of Floridians, failed to recognize how overwhelmingly flat the place is.

Kansas? The Great Plains as a whole are not as flat as people imagine. Any mildly alert observer can see that most of Kansas is rolling to quite hilly. When people visit us in eastern Kansas, they almost always express surprise that our terrain is not as flat as they expected. Yet the state’s reputation is so pervasive that flatness typically leads the conversation whenever we visit other parts of the country and introduce ourselves as being from Kansas.

In 2003, a team of clever geographers from Texas and Arizona published a spoof proving that “Kansas is flatter than a pancake.” Their conclusion was widely reported by news media and accepted as true by a public already inclined to believe that Kansas is flat.

Lee Allison, then director of the Kansas Geological Survey, conjectured that all states, including Kansas and Colorado, are flatter than a pancake. Our calculations prove him right. Indeed, Kansas would need a mountain higher than Mount Everest in order to not be flatter than a pancake. Imagine your favorite slumping, tilting, bubble-pocked flapjack stretched to the size of a state, and you will understand why.

It may be easy to calculate a state’s flatness based on the difference between its lowest and highest points, but that’s not how people really experience it. They cannot perceive what they cannot see, and the curvature of the Earth limits any flat surface view to only about 3.3 miles.

We performed a quantitative analysis of the contiguous United States, employing geographic software, digital elevation data and a new algorithm for measuring flatness. We took as our measure the viewpoint of a person standing on any spot and looking toward the horizon in all directions. We repeated the calculation every 295 feet across the entire United States, and the computation ran for 36 hours on a fairly powerful desktop computer. We aggregated these calculations for each state and determined flat land as a percentage of each state’s total area. Kansas came in No. 7.

Which state is the second flattest behind Florida? Which state is least flat? We have solid answers.

Illinois ranks second. Even before starting our analysis, we agreed that Central Illinois is the flattest place we ever see as we drive across the country.

Which state falls dead last? At least John Denver got that right when he sang, “West Virginia, mountain mama.”

Our Geographical Review article, “The Flatness of U.S. States,” contains maps and tables ranking all states except Hawaii and Alaska.

And for those clever spoofers, Texas ranks eighth, only one notch behind Kansas, and Arizona ranks 14th.

— Jerome E. Dobson is president of the American Geographical Society, professor of geography at the University of Kansas, and Jefferson Science Fellow with the National Academies and U.S. Department of State.

Joshua S. Campbell is a geographer and GIS architect with the Humanitarian Information Unit, Office of The Geographer and Global Issues, U.S. Department of State.



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