What’s the Flattest-Looking State in the U.S.?

How things are, and how things look, aren’t always the same thing

Topographic map of the U.S. and Canada. USGS

Compared to the mountainous stretches along the east and west coasts, the midwest U.S. is sometimes mocked as a empty expanse, a land of fields and farms that is, literally, "flatter than a pancake."

But, it all depends on how you look at this question. A pancake, for instance, is not actually that flat—it's an expanse of crevisses and mountainous air bubbles. And while some states are flatter than others—not every state has Alaska's Mount McKinley at 20,237 feet above sea level or California's Death Valley basin 282 feet below—whether or not they're perceived that way is another question altogether. Existence, and our perception of it, are not always the same thing.

In a new report, geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell ranked the contiguous U.S. states by perceived roundness. An objective measure of flatness is easy enough to gather with satellite-borne altimeters. But they wanted to know not which state is the flattest, but which one seems the flattest. They used a computer analysis to calculate how a 6-foot-tall person who could see just over 3 miles would see the world, using this analysis to dub the view either “flat” or “not flat.”

Based on personal experience with Great Plains landscapes, the authors determined that an angle of 0.32° was the appropriate cut-point for the classification. In practical terms, the visual effect is equivalent to observing a stand of trees 15 m. tall at 2,655 m. distance, or a 30m tree or hill at 5,310 m.

A long gentle slope, even if it amounts to a great change in elevation, still looks pretty flat from the ground.

For an observer standing in one spot, they calculated how the terrain would look in 16 different directions. Taken together, the view from that vantage could run from “not flat” through to “flat,” “flatter,” and “flattest.”

According to the analysis, and agreeing with reality, Florida is both the flattest and flattest-looking state. Next up are Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, Kansas and Texas. The least-flat-seeming states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.

But why then, the researchers ask, is the Midwest, particularly Kansas, joked about as being so flat?

Clearly, popular notions do not match the measured flatness of U. S. states. Florida is a fascinating case because its land is so demonstrably flat, and yet so few people think of it as such. This, in turn, begs the question, “What drives human perceptions of flatness?” Do Florida’s dense forests mask its flatness? Does standing water influence human perception of flatness?

The researchers aren't sure, but even so, what's at stake other than flapjack-flatness bragging rights? “[A]side from state pride,” the researchers write, “stereotypes have consequences. Business, academic, and other recruiting, for instance, are hampered by negative attitudes about the perceived flatness of “fly-over country” held by even the most qualified candidates.”

Florida has enough stereotype problems, though. Maybe we could let them have this one.

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