Kansas isn't as flat as most people are led to believe, KU researchers prove.
In a contest of state flatness, Kansas isn't even on the podium, but receives a participation ribbon at seventh place, geographers at the University of Kansas determined.
When geographer Jerome Dobson moved from the Appalachian region of Georgia to Kansas, he was surprised by how flat Kansas is not in light of its "flatter than a pancake" reputation.
He was also interested to see why people, even residents of the flattest state, Florida, had a perception of places so different than reality.
"We knew Florida was going to come out the flattest," Dobson said. "The more interesting question is why people don't think Florida is the flattest."
When asked in a nationwide poll, 77 percent of respondents failed to identify Florida as the flattest state, including 62 percent of Floridians.
It's a fun question to answer, but also an important tool against fighting easy, incorrect and damaging stereotypes about places. Those stereotypes have consequences, Dobson said, such as dismissing the great swaths of the rolling, green and golden prairie as endless empty void between other places.
"Stereotypes are an interesting phenomenon," Dobson said. "They really do have effects; they are hard to overcome. We felt this was a way we could get quantitative evidence."
In textbooks used by his students, there is one picture of qualifying the entirety of the Appalachian region, Dobson said: a coal tipple.
"That's not what the Appalachians look like or feel like. I show them other pictures to shake them from the stereotypes," Dobson said.
Dobson and his co-researcher, Joshua Campbell — a former student but now a geographer with the U.S. State Department — wrote in their paper:
"Business, academic, and other recruiting, for instance, are hampered by negative attitudes about the perceived flatness of 'fly-over country' held by even the most qualified candidates."
This reporter, a Virginia native but 23-year Sunshine Stater and recent Kansas transplant, thinks the infamous "Florida man" of national news oddities would agree.
The authors continue: "Perception notwithstanding, measuring and mapping flatness are important. Significant economic implications are associated with distinctive combinations of promontories and flat land that, for instance, create scenic vistas, produce favorable sites for wind farms to generate electricity, or determine the need for and cost of snow removal in winter storms. These are real costs that demand serious attention over large areas."
Before the project was taken up by Campbell, for several years Dobson urged his students to develop a "viewshed" that would more accurately capture a person's on-the-ground understanding of the world around them. Other attempted measures of flatness, such as one that compares the highest point to the lowest point in a state, failed to accurately capture a human perspective.
For this study, Dobson and Campbell segmented the country into 90-meter units using topographical information surveyed from the space shuttle in 2000. From of those cells, 16 rays at 22.5 degree separations were projected out 3.3 miles (roughly the distance a 6-foot tall person can see across open ocean due to the curvature of the earth) to see where they intersected with terrain.
If the rays didn't strike land once projected at an angle of 0.32 degrees off the ground, or roughly equivalent to seeing peak of a 100-foot tall hill 3.3 miles away, then that ray would be labelled "flat." The number of rays that came back "flat" was added to determine total "flatness" of a particular cell.
If four or fewer rays returned "flat," then the cell they were projected from was ruled "not flat." For "flat" areas, the portion of rays labelled "flat" determined how flat the flat area really is, from flat, flatter and flattest.
The calculation took their computer 6 days in four 36-hour chunks.
Florida had the highest number of flat, flatter or flattest areas — 52 percent of the state's total area — and the highest number of flattest areas, at 16 percent.
Illinois was close behind, with 50 percent of the state being flat, flatter or flattest, followed by North Dakota then Louisiana.
As mentioned above, Kansas came in seventh, with 44 percent of the state getting flat, flatter or flattest labels.
The state with the most topographical wrinkles was West Virginia, with 88 percent of the accurately-nicknamed Mountain State being not flat.
While the model developed by Dobson and Campbell gives hard evidence of flatness, it was not designed to know the hearts and minds of mankind, but Dobson has some guesses why perceptions are so far from reality.
In the sweltering, evergreen and concrete labyrinth that is Florida, sightlines are limited. Unlike Kansas, where Dobson said he and his wife first saw "a whole train at once" from atop Maple Hill, the palm trees, condominiums and highway overpasses prevent a viewer from taking in the vast flatness of the state's topography.
Or maybe it's the Interstate Highway System, whose engineers preferred to build along certain types of geography. And as travelers drive along I-70, they travel the wide length of Kansas, whereas they would only see the short dimension of tall and skinny Illinois.
Dobson and Campbell wrote: "Eastern Colorado is just as flat as Kansas, both being in the High Plains Physiographic Section; do drivers later reflecting on crossing the state mentally meld the High Plains of Kansas with the High Plains of Colorado and think of it all as flat 'Kansas?'"
"These and other questions suggest fruitful avenues for future research. However, breakthroughs that will alter present perceptions are difficult to imagine."