Is Kansas Really "Flatter than a Pancake"?

iStock / Lady-Photo
iStock / Lady-Photo

In a survey conducted by the American Geographical Society, almost a third of all respondents said that Kansas was the flattest state. Some people even call it “flatter than a pancake.” But what does science have to say about that?

The first, and only, study that we know of that directly compared the Sunflower State to a pancake was done by a trio of geographers in 2003. For their tongue-in-cheek analysis, they acquired a pancake from IHOP, cut out a sample slice and made a topographic profile of it using a laser microscope (assuring us that they would “not be daunted by the ‘No Food or Drink’ sign posted in the microscopy room”). They then compared their pancake to an east-west profile of Kansas taken from a 1:250,000 scale digital model of the state’s elevation data, and calculated flatness estimates for each. 

A flatness value of 1.000 would indicate “perfect, platonic flatness.” The pancake was scored as 0.957, which the researchers said is “pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat.” The value for Kansas, meanwhile was ~0.9997, or “damn flat,” as they said. 

“Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake,” the team concluded. 

But that’s not the whole story. When the playful study first came out in the Annals of Improbable Research, Lee Allison, then the Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, quipped that “everything on Earth is flatter than the pancake as they measured it.” 

Clarifying Allison’s retort in a paper from earlier this year, geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell explain it like this:

“The pancake measured in the article was 130 millimeters, and its surface relief was 2 millimeters. Apply that ratio to the east-west dimension of Kansas, approximately 644 kilometers, and the state would need a mountain (2/130 x 664,000 meters) 9,908 meters tall in order not to be flatter than a pancake. Since the highest mountain in the world is 8,848 meters tall, every state in the U.S. is flatter than a pancake.”

So, go ahead and rejoice, Kansans. Your state’s not alone in being flatter than a flapjack. But breakfast food comparisons aside, which state is the flattest? Dobson and Campbell’s research has more good news for Kansas: it’s not even in the top five. 

For their study, The Flatness of U.S. States, the pair developed a measure of human-scale perception of flatness by creating an algorithm that approximated what a person of average height would see if they were standing in a given spot and turning around in a circle, taking in 16 different views in a revolution. Then they took elevation data for the country from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, divided the contiguous U.S. (sorry, Alaska and Hawaii, but they already figured you wouldn’t be the flattest) into 90-meter cells and ran the algorithm to get a flatness score for each cell (calculated by the number of views in the cell that appeared flat: 0-4 flat views was considered “not flat”; 5-8 flat views, flat; 9-12, flatter and 13-16, flattest). Each state was then measured in terms of percentage of land that was not flat, flat, flatter and flattest, and then ranked. 

The state with the most land in the flat, flatter and flattest categories is, perhaps surprisingly, Florida. Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, Kansas, Texas, Nevada and Indiana round out the top ten.

Kansas isn’t as flat as we think it is when we stand there and look around, and Florida is flatter looking than most people probably give it credit for. It raises interesting questions for future research, the scientists say: “What drives human perceptions of flatness? Do Florida’s dense forests mask its flatness? Does standing water influence human perception of flatness?”

For now, you might ask if flatness and perception of it matters much. Dobson and Campbell think so. First, they say, “business, academic, and other recruiting, for instance, are hampered by negative attitudes about the perceived flatness” of the Midwest, and revealing Kansas for as not-flat as it is can combat that stereotype (I can see the billboards now, “Welcome to Kansas: Not as Flat as Delaware!”). A second benefit to having a measure of nationwide flatness is that it can help in finding good homes for wind turbines, highways or other infrastructure that requires flat land. 

The Netherlands Is Asking the World Not to Call It “Holland” Anymore—Here’s Why

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
dennisvdw/iStock via Getty Images

If you avoided ever referring to the Netherlands as “Holland” because you weren’t quite sure if that was correct, keep doing what you’re doing. The country kicked off 2020 by officially striking the name from use.

Though Holland technically refers to only two of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, North and South Holland, citizens have long accepted and even embraced it as another moniker for the entire country. But because those two provinces are home to popular destinations like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden, and The Hague, unmanageable masses of tourists are clogging the region and inching the Netherlands towards an over-tourism crisis.

Terminating references to Holland is part of the Netherlands’ nationwide endeavor to remind prospective tourists that the country isn’t just Holland, and it has plenty of other appealing locales beyond the quaint canals and cat houseboats of Amsterdam. As part of the rebrand, Holland will be replaced with the Netherlands in all promotional and marketing materials, as well as at companies, embassies, government offices, and universities. The country’s official logo is changing, too—instead of Holland beside an orange tulip, it’ll be the word Netherlands to the right of the initials NL (which are designed to resemble a tulip).

It’s not the Netherlands’ first attempt to keep tourism in check. According to Forbes, the Board of Tourism stopped promoting Holland as a tourist destination last May, and they’re shutting down offices in Spain, Italy, and Japan to help curb the influx of visitors. Amsterdam, meanwhile, is planning to increase its tourist tax for the second time in two years.

This latest campaign coincides with an especially significant year for the Netherlands in terms of international exposure. Not only will the country compete in this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, it’s also slated to host the Eurovision Song Contest and four soccer matches in the UEFA Euro tournament.

[h/t Forbes]

7 Mysterious Geological Formations That Still Baffle Scientists

bennymarty/iStock via Getty Images
bennymarty/iStock via Getty Images

Earth is covered with incredible geological structures, from volcanos to crystal-encrusted caves to awe-inspiring canyons. While some of our planet’s mysteries have been solved, some of its formations defy easy explanation. Here are a few that continue to baffle scientists.

1. The Eye of the Sahara // Mauritania

The Richat Structure, a.k.a. the Eye of the Sahara
ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center, NASA // Public Domain

The Eye of the Sahara, also known as the Richat Structure, is a 28-mile-wide site of huge concentric circles found in the western African nation of Mauritania. Geologists initially thought the site was created by an asteroid impact, but there isn’t enough melted rock among the rings to support this theory. Similarly, there’s no evidence to suggest a volcanic eruption. New Age enthusiasts hint that the Eye of the Sahara could represent the remains of the mythical sunken island of Atlantis, based on Plato’s allegory.

More recently, geologists have proposed that the Eye of the Sahara could be an eroded, collapsed geological dome, formed some 100 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangea broke up. Bolstering this theory are ancient rocks found on the surface, which originated as much as 125 miles beneath the Earth’s crust and before life existed on Earth. Research continues.

2. Lake Hillier // Australia

Pink Lake Hillier in Western Australia
Kurioziteti123, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This small, saltwater lake on an island off Western Australia is only one-third of a mile long, but its bubblegum-pink color makes it especially striking. The lake was documented in 1802 by British explorer Matthew Flinders, who took a sample of its waters but failed to understand how it got its startling hue. Tourists can visit only by helicopter, though it is safe to swim in the waters.

Scientists today suspect the color is due to the presence of a pink alga, Dunaliella salina, and/or a pink bacterium, Salinibacter ruber. But unlike other pink lakes around the world, such as Lake Retba in Senegal, Lake Hillier’s color doesn’t fluctuate with temperature or sunlight—so the investigation goes on.

3. The Great Unconformity // United States

Great Unconformity at the Grand Canyon
Alex Demas, USGS // Public Domain

The Great Unconformity is a huge gap in the geological record: Layers of rock dating from about 1.2 billion to 250 million years ago are completely missing from certain areas around the globe. This enormous chunk of lost time can be seen clearly in the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Geologists studying the anomaly there have noted that there is plenty of rock, full of fossils, from the Cambrian period (540 million years ago) but the layer beneath it is basement rock, formed roughly 1 billion years ago and empty of fossils. So, what happened to the stuff in between?

An emerging theory—"Snowball Earth”— may explain where the rock disappeared to. Around 700 million years ago, Earth was encased in snow and ice. Moving glaciers peeled off the planet’s crust with the help of lubricating sediments, pushing it into oceans, where it was reabsorbed by subducting tectonic plates. Many questions remain unanswered, though—such as the multimillion-year gap between the end of Snowball Earth, around 635 million years ago, and the start of the Cambrian period.

4. Nastapoka Arc // Canada

Aerial view of Hudson Bay
Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the southeast corner of Hudson Bay, Canada, lies a near-perfect arc. The mysterious half-circle, also known as the Hudson Bay Arc, was first thought to be an impact crater from a meteorite. But none of the usual confirming evidence, such as shatter cones or unusual melted rocks, has been found in the vicinity.

The most commonly accepted theory for the arc, based on geological evidence collected in the 1970s and later, is that it is a boundary formed when one shelf of rock was pushed under another other. That doesn’t explain how or why is it’s so perfectly round—so the Nastapoka Arc remains subject to ongoing study.

5. Mima Mounds // United States

Mima Mounds in Washington
zrfphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The Mima Mounds are mysterious, uniform undulations in the grasslands of Washington State near Olympia, ranging from 10 to 164 feet in diameter and up to 6.5 feet tall. When American explorer Charles Wilkes set eyes on them in 1841, he believed they were human-made burial mounds and had three of them excavated, only to find them filled with loose stones. Similar mounds are found from California to Colorado and have puzzled naturalists for years.

Scientists suggest that some of the mounds may be 30,000 years old, which makes decoding them complex; humans are believed to have arrived in North America several thousand years later than that. Many theories about their cause—glacial flooding, whirlpools, and even wind-blown sediment clumping around vegetation—have been dismissed. The current leading theory, based on computer modelling, is that pocket gophers created the mounds. Yet doubts remain: No one has ever witnessed a pocket gopher building one.

6. Fairy Circles // Namibia

Fairy circles in Namibia
demerzel21/iStock via Getty Images

Up close, the fairy circles in the Namib Desert are just circular patches of bare red earth, surrounded by tufts of grass. But from a bird’s-eye view, these spots stretch endlessly across the arid landscape, creating a regular polka-dot pattern. Folktales claim the spots are the gods’ footprints, but scientists have searched for an evidence-based explanation.

At first, some proposed that the circles are created when plants compete for water: The root systems of the successful vegetation dominate the ground, while smaller plants are unable to compete, leaving bare patches of desert. In 2017, a promising new theory appeared in the journal Nature. Excavations of several circles revealed termite nests under each one, implying the circles were created by the termites eating the vegetation above their territory, allowing desert grasses to flourish only between each nest. Ecologists modeled both the plant-competition and hungry-termite theories, and found that both supported conditions conducive to fairy circles. But with such a complex ecosystem, scientists say more research is needed.

7. Yamal Craters // Russia

Aerial view of the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia
Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, NASA // Public Domain

In 2014, a helicopter pilot flying over the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, which juts into the Kara Sea, noticed an enormous hole in the permafrost. Scientists rushed to analyze the nearly 100-foot-wide crater and determine its origin. A meteorite impact, a natural gas explosion, or alien interference were all floated as possible causes.

Tests of the air at the bottom of the crater revealed very high levels of methane, pointing to an explosion—possibly brought on by several unusually warm summers that destabilized the permafrost. But an equally likely explanation, according to some researchers, is that the crater represents a slow, long-term collapse of the permafrost itself rather than a recent explosion. Since then, more craters have been discovered. Further study is needed, but the treacherous permafrost makes research difficult.

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