Study shows North Dakota is third flattest state

Land outside Richardton provides some hilly landscapes, but the flattest land in North Dakota lies in the Red River Valley on the east side of the state.

North Dakota is flatter than only two other states, according to new research, and the first two might be a surprise.

Hint: Kansas is not in the top two.

Jerome Dobson, a geographer at the University of Kansas, set out to study how flat states actually are. He started in 2013 by asking Americans what they thought the flattest state was, and one-third of the reponses named Kansas.

But that wasn't the case. Florida and Illinois, followed by North Dakota, topped the list of the nation's flattest states. Minnesota was No. 5, Montana No. 34, and West Virginia was the least flat state.

“I predicted Florida,” Dobson said in a phone interview. “The highest point is only 345 feet or something close to that. We climb that much going across campus.”

Dobson said central Illinois was the flattest place he's personally seen. As for the Peace Garden State, he said the big, wide river valleys across the state contributed to its ranking. His research found 49 percent of North Dakota to be rated in the flattest category of land.

Lorraine Manz, a geologist for the North Dakota Geological Survey, said glacier movement during the last ice age helped shaped the state's current topography. The weight of the ice, she said, had a planing effect. The glaciers melting dropped sediment and helped fill in the valleys. Flatter land is also ideal for farmland, which is abundant in the state.

North Dakota's Red River Valley is the largest flat plain, especially near the glacier-made Lake Agassiz. There are rolling and undulating areas of North Dakota, she said, but parts of the state northeast of Minot and in Devils Lake are also among the flattest areas.

The results of the Dobson's study didn't surprise Manz. The central portion of the continental United States, she said, haven't had any strong geological movement such as earthquakes in quite a while.

“It's geologically very stable,” Manz said. “It just kind of sits there.”

Dobson said his study breaks down perceptions of what a flat state is. A 2003 study jokingly said Kansas was flatter than an IHOP pancake. It came in at No. 7, which beat Dobson's prediction that it would fall outside the top 10.

Even he had the common misconception that Kansas—a landscape, in actuality, with many rolling hills—was more like the breakfast entree when he first moved to the state.

“When I came up here, I was expecting it to be flat, and it wasn't flat,” Dobson said. “I'm in my living room right now looking at a respectable ridge.”

The perception that Kansas is flat, he added, likely comes from cross-country travelers who mostly see the flat parts of the state. The same goes for Nebraska and Iowa because Interstate 80 is mostly flat river valleys. Those states ranked No. 19 and 18 respectively.

The Wizard of Oz didn't help either, he noted. The film portrayed the home of Dorothy and Toto as flat, bleak land, which still stands as the most known mainstream depiction of Kansas.

“I guess as a professor, I'm offended by ignorance,” Dobson said as a reason why he tackled the subject matter. “We have the tools now to calculate this subjectively. I also believe, in education, we need to be doing stuff the public appreciates and not just about what we appreciate.”

To measure flatness in this study, Dobson and his research partner Joshua Campbell analyzed data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in geographic information systems (GIS) software. Then they developed an algorithm to approximate what a person would see if they were standing on a knoll and turned in a circle, recording their view at 16 different points, and recorded the land as flat, not flat, flatter or flattest.

The algorithm ran for six days to process the data.

Dobson and Campbell studied the 48 continental U.S. states and the District of Columbia. They did not do Alaska or Hawaii because they knew neither state was very flat.

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