Page 13--Landforms and Landscapes


Acansis, Canips, Caw, Ka Anjou, Kathasi, Kauzaus, Konga, Quaus, Ukasak. These are just a few of the ways early explorers spelled the name of an Indian tribe they found living in central North America. Because the Indians had no written language, their name had no official spelling. French explorers spelled it the way they thought it should be spelled in French, the Spanish based their spellings on Spanish, and the Americans used English. Later settlers named the territory after the Indians. They called it Kansas.

Just as Kansas has had many names, it also has many faces. Not all areas of Kansas are alike. Some areas are hilly, others are flat. Some parts have more rainfall and rivers, which means more trees and bushes. In areas with less rainfall, fewer trees and more prairie grasslands are found. In some areas the dirt is brown. In other parts it is red. Some places have water stored in rocks underground, while in other areas, ground water is not so plentiful.

The landscape in Kansas hasn't changed much in the past 4,000 to 5,000 years. The biggest changes have been made by the people who have made Kansas their home. Although the Indians did affect the environment, they lived more in harmony with nature. When settlers moved in, the big changes began.

Farmers plowed the soil and the prairie grasslands began to disappear. Holes and ditches were dug in the earth in search of minerals and building materials. Roads and buildings were constructed, and cities and towns grew. Most of this happened in just the past 150 years.

Today the Kansas landscape is a combination of natural landforms and human-made features. Natural landforms are features of the Earth such as hills, mountains, valleys, slopes, canyons, sand dunes, plains, and plateaus.

The landscape looks the way it does because of geologic activities in the past. In some places limestone is the rock at or closest to the surface and in other places sandstone is on top. In some areas hills were carved out by rivers that eroded the land. In other places, large rivers meandered around and flattened out the land for miles in all directions. Large slabs of rock are near the surface in some regions, making the soil rocky, while other regions have several layers of soil and sediment above the rock.

The state has been divided into regions based on rock type and age, landscape, and landforms. Some regions look alike but the rocks and soil in the regions were formed at different times. Differences also are found within a single region. Hilly regions have flat areas and flat regions usually have a few hills. The variety of landscapes and landforms in Kansas may surprise you.

Ozark Plateau

Many people still form their opinion of Kansas by watching a Hollywood movie made in 1939. The Wizard of Oz, which, by the way, was not filmed in Kansas but in a Hollywood studio, depicts Kansas as hot, dry, dusty, flat, and tornado-ridden. The Ozark Plateau region, in the southeast corner of the state, doesn't come close to fitting this image.

This region of Kansas is the corner of the Ozarks, a hilly and densely forested region that covers a large area in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The limestone and flint in this region were formed during the Mississippian Period, 350 million years ago. They are the oldest surface rocks in the state.

Two minerals, lead and zinc, were once mined in this area. Rocks were crushed to get the minerals out. The lead and zinc are no longer mined here, but big piles of crushed rock called "chat" were left behind.

Figure 30. Tailings piles in Cherokee County.

Cherokee Lowlands

The region northwest of the Ozark Plateau, the Cherokee Lowlands, differs from the Ozark Plateau in appearance. The Lowlands aren't as hilly as the Plateau and don't have as many trees, but the two regions have similar mining and industry backgrounds.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, business was booming in southeast Kansas. Growth was based on thriving industries, such as coal mining and the cement, glass, brick, and tile plants that popped up around the area. All of these industries used the natural resources such as coal, zinc, clay, and limestone. But by the 1930's, many of the industries closed because they were no longer profitable. Some industry still exists in southeast Kansas and coal is still mined, but the mineral-based industrial heyday is over.

In Kansas, coal is removed by strip mining. Large, mechanical shovels are used to dig long, deep ditches to reach the underground coal. One of the world's largest shovels, Big Brutus, was used in Cherokee County. Big Brutus is retired from mining now and is used as a museum.

Figure 31. Big Brutus is 160 feet tall from the ground to the top of the boom. This distance is about equal to the height of a 15-story building.

Companies must smooth out these ditches and plant trees and grass when they are finished mining. This is called land reclamation. After the land is leveled, it can be used for other things, such as farming and grazing.

Before 1969, companies didn't have to reclaim the land. Land that was not reclaimed can still be seen. Many of the abandoned ditches are now filled with water and have been stocked with fish.


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Kansas Geological Survey
Updated March 6, 1996
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