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. 

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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How African Dust Storms Create the Caribbean’s Beautiful Beaches—and Protect Them from Hurricanes

Cam Green/Pexels
Cam Green/Pexels

The fertile red soils of Bermuda and the rich coral reefs of the Bahamas are a geological mystery. Both are made up of a specific combination of alien minerals and nutrients not found anywhere on the islands or in the ocean that surrounds them. Scientifically speaking, they should not exist.

But over the last decade, geologists have come up with an explanation for these ecological anomalies: They originated 5000 miles away in Africa. For more than a million years, dust from the Sahara Desert has hitched a ride on westward-traveling winds to the Caribbean. Bermuda and the Bahamas are, quite literally, an extension of the world’s largest desert.

But African dust storms aren’t just responsible for developing Bermuda’s clay-and-iron-abundant “terra rossa” and the coral reefs of the Bahamas; they also play an important role in protecting them from destructive hurricanes. Like atmospheric superheroes, the dust storms’ combination of dry air, strong winds, and cloud-suppressing particles appears to have the ability to stop hurricanes in their tracks.

From Desert to Tropical Paradise

On June 18, 2020, NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captured this visible image of the large light brown plume of Saharan dust over the North Atlantic Ocean. NASA Worldview // Public Domain

In the summer months, dust storms, some as large as the continental United States, roll off the African coast every three to five days in a dry atmospheric shelf called the Saharan Air Layer. Sometimes they dissipate before they reach the eastern Atlantic. Other times, like in late June and early July 2020, they set sunsets afire from the Caribbean to the southeastern U.S.

The dust blown to Earth by these long-haul storms is packed with soil-enriching nutrients and iron that have completely altered parts of the natural landscape. Bermuda’s endemic dirt and sand is made up of the calcium carbonate leftovers of ancient coral, mollusks, and crustaceans, and the growth of abundant plant matter would be impossible without nutrient deposits from annual African dust storms.

Researchers hypothesize that the Bahamas’s underlying layer of calcium-rich rock and coral reefs wouldn’t have developed without Saharan dust, either—the dust is thought to help cyanobacteria fix nitrogen in the environment, allowing the carbonate layers to accumulate.

Hurricane-Smothering Sands

Climate scientists believe that Saharan dust storms may have an equally important job high above Earth. The summer dust storm season closely coincides with tropical storm and hurricane season, and most of them—around half of all tropical storms and 85 percent of the Atlantic’s most intense hurricanes—originate in Africa.

As they hurtle westward, hurricanes and dust storms mix it up over the Atlantic. But it’s not a fair fight. Hurricanes need humid air to form; dust storms are extremely dry. Hurricanes suck up moisture from the ocean and then release it as rain, while dust prevents moisture from rising into the atmosphere’s higher layers. Dust storms also have "vertical wind shear,” strong embedded winds that can break down a developing hurricane. Essentially, a Saharan dust storm is like a bone-dry, extremely powerful, hurricane-smothering blanket.

As hurricanes increase in frequency and strength alongside warming oceans and a changing climate, understanding exactly how they interact with dust storms may help researchers to identify which Atlantic storms are the most likely to intensify into life-threatening hurricanes. And if climate scientists can recognize the most destructive storms far in advance, those in their path may have a better chance of emerging unscathed when gray skies return to blue.