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Editorial, 4/5: Flattening a myth about Nebraska

Editorial, 4/5: Flattening a myth about Nebraska

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Nebraskans who are tired of hearing that their state is flat and boring can thank a geography professor at the University of Kansas for proving otherwise.

Nebraska is not even in the Top 10.

It ranks as the 19th flattest state, according to “The Flatness of U.S. States,” published in the Geographical Review.

The paper has attracted enough attention -- comment has come from The Guardian, the Atlantic and the National Geographic -- that most of the puns have already been used.

That’s predictable byproduct when levelheaded researchers in search of the plain truth come up with results proving that critics of Nebraska’s topography are just flat wrong.

KU Professor Jerry Dobson and Joshua Campbell, who works at the Office of the Geographer at the State Department, did a “geomorphometric analysis” of the lower 48 states using a new algorithm and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission elevation data.

The objective was to measure flatness the way a person would -- by standing and looking toward the horizon. The researchers separated each state into 300-foot cells to evaluate millions of perspectives.

It took the algorithm six days to run through all the data.

Part of their motivation was to counter the impression left by a 2003 satirical study in the Annals of Improbable Research that determined that Kansas was, in fact, flatter than an actual pancake from IHOP.

In Nebraska’s case, the impression of flatness comes from the experience of motorists passing through on Interstate 80. The Interstate follows the Platte River valley for much of its length.

That means that motorists never lay eyes on the rolling dunes of the Nebraska Sandhills, the buttes and ridges of the Pine Ridge escarpment in the northwest corner of the state and the canyons and bluffs of the Niobrara River valley. They only glimpse the steep hills of Omaha.

There is plenty of flat terrain in Nebraska, of course.

Just not as much as some might think.

The data show that the flattest state is Florida, followed by Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, Kansas, Texas, Nevada and Indiana. The five least flattest states in the lower 48th were, in order, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Dobson said the study is important because perceptions matter, both culturally and economically. People tend not to apply for jobs if they think a state is flat and boring, he said. It’s now a scientifically documented fact that those words do not apply to Nebraska.


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