Holy hotcakes! Study finds Kansas flatter than pancake

Turns out Kansas really is flatter than a pancake — scientifically speaking.

Travelers enduring the trip across the western half of Kansas have long suspected the geography is flatter than that of a griddle cake.

Now there’s mathematical proof.

A team of scientists from Southwest Texas State University and Arizona State University recently published an article in which researchers analyzed the geography both of the state and that of a pancake purchased at International House of Pancakes.

“Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake,” they wrote.

The results, published in the tongue-in-cheek Annals of Improbable Research, have created a flapjack flap among geologists and others in Kansas.

“My guess is you could put Colorado in there, the way they’re calculating it, and it would be flatter than a pancake,” said Lee Allison, director of the Kansas Geological Survey. “I think this is part of a vast breakfast food conspiracy to denigrate Kansas. It’s a cheap shot.”

The lead scientist in the research effort was Mark Fonstad, assistant professor of geography at Southwest Texas State. Appropriately, he and two other researchers were eating breakfast when they started discussing how flat their pancakes really were.

Brandon Vogt, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, suggested they compare a pancake to Kansas. Vogt previously had been a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder and made frequent trips across the state on I-70 to visit friends in Columbia, Mo.

“It’s flatness — there’s nothing to see, nowhere to stop,” Vogt said.

Kansas is actually flatter than a pancake, according to a group of scientists from Southwest Texas State University and Arizona State University. In their recently published article, the scientists analyzed the geography of the state and a pancake purchased at International House of Pancakes. Saturday in Lawrence, IHOP cook Edwin Mueller, who displays a pancake in the shape of Kansas, said he wasn't surprised at their findings.

The problem with the research, they noted in the article, was that “barring the acquisition of either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas, mathematical techniques are needed to do a proper comparison.”

So the scientists ignored the “No Food or Drink” sign near ASU’s $500,000 confocal laser microscope and mapped the terrain of a flapjack. Then, they obtained elevation data for Kansas from the U.S. Geological Survey.

They compared the change in elevation using a median line. Fonstad said the results told them more about the rugged nature of pancakes, not how flat Kansas is.

“People just look down at their pancake,” he said. “They don’t look at it carefully. If you were an ant climbing, it would be incredibly difficult to navigate. There are bubbles and ridges, and it usually bulges in the middle. I’m not arguing it’s a mountain, but it’s not a piece of paper either.”

Vogt added: “If a pancake was the size of Kansas and you were on Highway 70, you’d encounter 10-mile-deep potholes.”

Kansas not the flattest

Allison, the Kansas geologist, disagreed with the findings because he said the researchers included the entire pancake — not just the top part. He noted that the sides drop off dramatically, adding to the change in the pancake’s elevation.

According to data, Allison said, Kansas is far from the flattest state in the nation. If you measure flatness by the difference between the highest and lowest elevations, Kansas is 22nd, with Florida leading the way. If you measure it using elevation changes in 1-kilometer sections, it is 32nd, with Delaware the flattest.

So if Kansas isn’t the flattest state, why does it take such a ribbing for being elevation-impaired?

Fonstad, who typically uses shape and elevation to predict river changes, said it was all a matter of what surrounds the state.

“On the scale of a human being driving, it appears to be quite flat,” he said, “especially if you’ve just driven through mountains on one side or, on the other side, like Ohio which has quite a bit more hills.”

The Liberal view

A Kansas pancake expert agreed the state’s terrain seems hillier than the typical hotcake.

“It does surprise me that Kansas is flatter than a pancake,” said Gary Classen, who has been chairman of Liberal’s International Pancake Day race for the past two years. “I thought we made our pancakes pretty smooth here.”

Girmai Misgna, an analyst for the Kansas Geological Survey on Kansas University's west campus looks over some pancakes Friday, to see if they resemble Kansas in any way. A team of researchers from Texas and Arizona recently reported that Kansas was as flat as a pancake.

Classen said pancakes for the race were packed tightly to make them more aerodynamic. They need to flip and land neatly for the race, a 50-plus year tradition of competition between Liberal and Olney, England, with women running down the streets of each town flipping pancakes. But the cooks aren’t so careful when they do the flapjacks for the 2,000 people drawn to the annual feed accompanying the race.

And Classen said the research did prove one definitive fact.

“Obviously there are some other people that have more free time than we do,” he said. “People think we’re nuts for turning a 60-second race into a four-day event.”

Molly Coplen of Lawrence also took issue with the idea that Kansas is flat. She should know — she has participated in the Bike Across Kansas program for 11 years.

While she acknowledged that some areas certainly are flat — bicyclists near Hutchinson are jokingly called “pancake riders” because of the terrain there — she said the hills in the eastern third of Kansas made the state an interesting place to ride a bicycle.

Coplen had an offer for the researchers to see for themselves.

“I’d be more than happy to take some nonbelievers out on a bike across Kansas and show them the hills,” she said.