Science: Several U.S. States, Led by Florida, Are Flatter Than a Pancake

Geographers in Kansas look for the country's plain truths.
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Jerome Dobson, Joshua Campbell

In 2003, the Annals of Improbable Research released the results of a study that was not so much groundbreaking as it was ground-battering: Kansas, the tongue-in-cheek analysis found, was flatter than a pancake. The researchers Mark Fonstad, William Pugatch, and Brandon Vogt used polynomial equations to calculate the flatness of the famously flat state, and discovered that—as compared to the topography of an IHOP pancake—it was indeed flatter than a flapjack.

Their finding was not incorrect. Parts of Kansas are, in fact, flatter than a pancake! But the study’s focus on Kansas, it turns out, was also misleading. Because there are states—six of them, to be specific—that are even flatter than Kansas. The states flatter than a pancake, you could say, could be served in a short stack. 

This latest flatness finding comes courtesy of geographers at the University of Kansas, who just published a paper, “The Flatness of U.S. States,” in Geographical Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Geographical Society. KU Professor Jerome Dobson and his colleague Joshua Campbell, who works at the State Department's Office of the Geographer, conducted a “geomorphometric analysis” of the contiguous United States—a measure, basically, of the nation’s lumps and bumps. To do that, the pair developed a method for reckoning flatness, creating an algorithm that would allow them to develop a comprehensive estimate of states’ relative pancakery.

Their focus was human perception of flatness—since the point of the study, Dobson told me, was largely to combat public perceptions about Kansas’s flatness. (Those translate, he says, to public perceptions about Kansas’s boringness.) To estimate geographical flatness as perceived by the human eye, Dobson and Campbell put math behind the experience of looking toward the horizon and seeing a rise of land (in their case, to the height of a tall tree at a distance of three miles). From there, Dobson says, “we put together a simulation”—one that approximates “what you would see if were standing on one spot, and turning around 360 degrees, and recording what you see every 16 times as you turn around.”

Once they’d developed their algorithm, Dobson and Campbell processed elevation data, gathered from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, for the contiguous U.S.—48 states and the District of Columbia. (Why not Alaska and Hawaii? “We knew the answer for those well enough,” Dobson told me; “we knew they weren't going to be the flattest.”) They gridded their findings into 90-meter cell. Then they categorized each cell as not flat, flat, flatter, or flattest. (“It was a lot of computation,” Dobson says, “because we're measuring every 90 meters, or every 300 feet, across the country.”)

From there, they compared each state’s percentage of flatness—and ranked them. The top 10 flattest states, per their results (and ranked according to their total flat, flatter, and flattest designations): 

  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • North Dakota
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • Delaware
  • Kansas

  • Texas

  • Nevada
  • Indiana

In other words, Dobson says: “What we're seeing is the percentage of Kansas that is flat is a lower percentage than Florida.”

While the list offers a ranked percentage of state area in the flat, flatter, and flattest categories, you can see a rank of states according to the flattest category alone charted on the map above.

So why do this work—why focus on flatness in the first place? For one thing, there's the novelty of it. "People measure mountains and hills all the time. I'm not sure anybody has purposely measured 'flat' before," Dobson says. There's also the fact that perceptions matter—not just culturally, but also economically. "For those who think this is a frivolous study, it's important because it really does affect people's perceptions,” Dobson notes. “People don't apply for jobs here because they think it's flat and boring.”

There are also more practical concerns, Dobson says. Detailed data when it comes to land’s flatness and slopes can help determine where, for example, to place infrastructure like wind farms. And there are, should you be looking to start a wind farm, lots of places in Kansas that would fit the bill. To the extent that, per his work, "it would take a mountain higher than Mt. Everest,” Dobson says, "in order for Kansas not to be flatter than a pancake."

That’s a relief.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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