OP ED Writers Circle

The American Geographical Society’s Writers Circle provides an avenue for geographers to share their analyses of critical issues with the general public.  The program distributes opinion pieces to more than 1000 newspapers across the US and Canada, and reaches even farther as newspapers and blogs across the world pick up its items.

AGS has a long and distinguished record of providing geographic perspectives on important public issues, and the Op Ed program builds on that tradition. Insightful and up-to-date analysis of current and historical events is critical in helping leaders, policy makers, and the public understand broader social and economic issues. The primary goal of the Op Ed program is to educate and inform about a wide variety of issues from a geographer’s point of view.  No other organization in the geographical community offers this type of forum.

AGS Writers Circle contributions represent the authors’ viewpoint, not those of the organization. They inform the public while simultaneously building geographical dialogs that reach far beyond the geographical community.

4 March 2014

Dear Editor:

This piece is for immediate release.  It is for your use without charge.

The authors measured the flatness of U. S. states and found that (a) Florida is by far the flattest state, (b) Kansas is not as flat as most people think, and (c) all states are flatter than a pancake.   (598 words).

* * * * * *
The authors are members of the American Geographical Society’s Writers Circle.  The American Geographical Society (AGS) advances and promotes geography in business, government, science, and education. Our goal is to enhance the nation’s geographic literacy so as to engender sound public policy, national security, and human well-being worldwide.  Geography for Society, since 1851.

The opinion expressed is that of the authors and not of the American Geographical Society.

For information about AGS and its Writers Circle, please see https://www.amergeog.org/media1/op-ed-writers-circle.

Colorado Is Flatter Than a Pancake, and Kansas Is Not 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% of respondents said Kansas and 23% 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% of all national respondents, including 62% 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 Mt. 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 number 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 8th, only one notch behind Kansas, and Arizona ranks 14th.



The full citation is:  Dobson, J. E., and J. S. Campbell.  2014.  “The Flatness of U. S. States.”  Geographical Review 104(1):1-9.

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. Dr. Dobson can be reached at (785) 864-5536 or dobson@ku.edu.