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Kansas: Not so flat after all

3/7/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

A geographer from the University of Kansas has debunked the idea of Kansas as the nation's flattest state.

The seventh flattest in fact, according to KU geography professor Jerry Dobson.

But he's content to continue calling the western third of Kansas "truly flat."

Never mind Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas at 4,039 feet above sea level, sits northwest of Weskan in the western reaches of the state.

In fact, the four sets of hills cited by Dobson all pale in comparison to points in the western third of the state.

Kansas Geological Survey stratigrapher Bob Sawin, a frequent visitor to western Kansas, knows all too well about Kansas's reputation as flat.

"Isn't it perception that goes back to the Wizard of Oz?" he asked.

To be sure, Sawin won't disagree with the idea of a varied terrain through the Flint Hills and the Smoky Hills west of Salina.

And he'll quickly agree the drive along I-70 is indeed flat.

But the drive along eastern Colorado is even flatter, he said, adding to the perception.

"It's just what people know," Sawin said.

Dobson agrees with that notion.

"It's truly ingrained," he said. "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."

While Sawin said he's driven areas in Kansas that are especially flat, it doesn't take much for the terrain to change.

That's the case in the Garden City area, he said.

"But then you drop down into Lake Scott and it's a whole different world," he said. "When you get off the main drive, there's a lot of places that aren't flat at all."

Dobson's study also debunks a tongue-in-cheek 2003 study declaring Kansas "as flat as a pancake." An IHOP pancake to be precise.

"The topographic transects of both Kansas and a pancake at millimeter scale are both quite flat," the study by Improbable Research states, "but this first analysis showed that Kansas is clearly flatter."

Dobson, in fact, went on to say that "even Colorado is flatter than a pancake would be if expanded to the size of a state."

Through Dobson's research, Kansas was shown to be the seventh flattest state.

Florida, where the highest point in the state is a mere 345 feet above sea level, is the flattest.

Following are Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota and Delaware.

The research appears in the current issue of Geographical Review, published by the American Geographical Society. Dobson is president of the group.

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Mount Sunflower, less than a mile from Colorado is the state's highest point at 4,039 feet. That's sharply higher than the 679 feet where the Verdigris River flows into Oklahoma.