The Ozark Plateau of Kansas

Megan M. Flory

Fall 2007
ES546 Field Geomorphology
Dr. James S. Aber, Instructor

Table of Contents
Site Characterization


The Ozark Plateau is a unique and interesting physiographic region of Kansas. In addition to its distinctive geomorphic and climatic characteristics, historically this region was of great economic importance due to the vast amounts of lead and zinc ore mined from the area. The field geomorphology class, taught by Dr. James Aber at Emporia State University, took a field trip to the Ozark Plateau region on October 28, 2007 to obtain aerial photographs and conduct a general examination of the area. The primary site for aerial photography was Schermerhorn Park, located just south of Galena on Highway K26.

Image by Author
October 28, 2007

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The Ozark Plateau is the smallest physiographic region in Kansas, covering only 55 square miles. It is located in the far southeast corner of Cherokee County and is confined by the Spring River to the west and the state boundary to the east and south. (Brosius 2005)

Revised map of Kansas physiographic regions.
Taken from Aber and Aber (2007).

As its name suggests, this region is part of the Ozark Highlands, which extend into Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Kansas section includes the cities of Galena and Baxter Springs, which were at one time highly populated, important industrial centers of the state. However, once the mining that drove the economy shut down, the population of these cities dropped severely and today Galena and Baxter Springs are mostly residential communities. (McCauley 1983) Although the mining that took place in this region ended more than 30 years ago, the environmental effects are still quite evident and remain dangerous to these communities.

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At Emporia State University, two methods of small-format aerial photography (SFAP) have been developed. One method is based on kites (Aber et al. 1999) and the other method, which was utilized for the photography on this field trip, is based on a small helium blimp (Aber 2004).

Looking up toward the blimp. The Canon Rebel camera is suspended underneath the blimp.

The helium blimp used is about 4 meters long and holds about 7 m3 of helium, which easily provides enough lift to support camera systems weighing up to 1 kg. The blimp can only be used in wind speeds less than 15 km/hr but has excellent stability in these conditions. These attributes provide the opportunity for operation in tight quarters, such as the tree-covered hilltops at Schermerhorn Park. (Aber and Aber 2004)

Film cameras can be used for SFAP, but since 2005, only high-resolution digital cameras have been used at ESU. The cameras used for photography at this site were the Canon Digital Rebel SLR and the Canon Powershot S70.

Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera shown with zoom lens attached and rig in flight. This camera has interchangeable lenses, which allows great flexibility for SFAP applications. Photo taken from Aber and Aber (2007).
Canon Powershot S70 camera and rig, which weighs a total of 0.8 kg, shown in flight. This camera’s compact size, light weight, and advanced photographic capabilities make it very useful for many applications. Photo taken from Aber and Aber (2007).

Photographs are taken from 30 to 150 m above the ground using radio-controlled camera rigs, which allow the cameras to be tilted vertical to horizontal and rotated 360o. (Aber and Aber 2004)

Vertical view of the balloon launching site taken with the Canon Rebel. The blue tarp is for inflating and deflating the blimp.
View towards the west taken with the Canon Powershot S70. Highway 66 can be seen here as well as Shoal Creek and the picnic area of Schermerhorn Park.

The class also examined some of the surrounding area on foot and numerous ground photos were taken of the park and nearby areas.

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Site Characterization


While most of Kansas is fairly dry, this area receives more than 40 inches of precipitation a year, making it one of the wettest places in the state. (Brosius 2005) The ample precipitation and regional topography results in perennial streams existing mostly in dendritic and radial drainage patterns. These clear, cold streams, such as Shoal Creek (pictured) are often spring fed as well. (McCauley 1983, Aber 2007, USDA Forest Service 2007)

Image taken by author on October 28, 2007 of the Shoal Creek in Schermerhorn Park.

The mature hardwood forests consisting of hickory, oak, and walnut trees that cover the hilltops are also evidence of the abundant precipitation in this region.

View eastward over Shoal Creek taken with the Canon Rebel. To the left is an example of the hardwood forest, and the valley bottom can be seen at the right of the photo.


The Ozark Plateau is developed on Mississippian-age cherty limestones, which are the oldest exposed rocks in the state of Kansas. Because chert is more resistant than limestone, weathering of the bedrock produces the chert gravel commonly found on hilltops, ridges and stream valleys in this region. (Brosius 2005, McCauley 1983) Weathering of these limestones also occurs as water percolates down through cracks found near the surface, dissolving the underlying bedrock. This dissolution of bedrock produces what is known as karst.

The following image is a simplified diagram representing some common karst features, including sinking streams, caves and sinkholes. Natural springs are also common in this region and are an important element of its geomorphic characteristics.

Image taken from University of Texas at Austin (2007)

A great example of one of these karst features in the Mississippian limestones, is the Schermerhorn Cave, located just a short distance from our aerial photography site in Schermerhorn Park.

Image by Charlton (2005), courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey

These extensive karst features also create an intricate ground-water system, in which water flows through very quickly and can lead to interesting ground-water problems.

Human Land Use:

The Mississippian-age limestones occurring in this region were found to contain large amounts of lead and zinc ore. These deposits were first discovered in Galena in 1870 and the last mine closed in 1970. During these 100 years, the Tri-State mining district of southwestern Missouri, southeastern Kansas, and northeastern Oklahoma accounted for 50 percent of the US production of zinc and 10 percent of the production of lead, making it one of the most important metal-mining areas in the world. The Kansas region alone produced more than 2.9 million tons of zinc with an estimated value of 436 million dollars, and 650 thousand tons of lead worth nearly 91 million dollars. (McCauley 1983)

Image taken from McCauley (1983) showing the extent of lead and zinc mining in the Kansas portion of Tri-State mining district.

In Galena and the surrounding areas, the Mississippian cherty limestones containing the ore occurred near the surface, allowing for surface mining techniques, including open-cut methods. Room and pillar mining techniques were also used, which involved digging shafts for exploration, then mining the area out from this shaft if ore was found. Pillars were left as the mine was being worked but were often robbed if ore was found on them. The shallow nature of the deposits allowed small mining operations to prosper and resulted in the subdivision of leases into small subleased plots. This subdivision led to a high density of mine shafts in the Galena area. (McCauley 1983)

These mining techniques left behind a number of physical and environmental hazards, including open mine shafts, collapsed mine shafts, mine cave-ins, and severely contaminated groundwater. (Brosius 2005)

This is an aerial view of mined land near the town of Galena. The pockmarks are mine shafts and the white areas are piles of chat. Often, the rocks containing ore were crushed to remove it and “chat” refers to the piles of waste rock left after removal. Image taken from Buchanan (2007), courtesy of the Kansas Geological Survey.
A close-up of a chat pile located in the Oklahoma portion of the Tri-state mining district. Image taken by author, October 28, 2007.

In the early 1990s the city of Galena and surrounding areas underwent reclamation, which included filling in old mine shafts and bringing in new top soil. This immensely improved the appearance of the area and decreased the physical dangers associated with old mines. However, there is still surficial evidence of the mining that took place in this area, as shown in this photograph.

View toward the northwest taken with the Canon S70. The city of Galena can be seen in the far right of the photo and the reddish-brown patches are former lead and zinc mining sites.

The reclamation efforts in this area were somewhat successful with problems such as land collapses and groundwater contamination continuing. Many of the mined rock layers were also aquifers containing large volumes of water that had to be pumped out of the ground to allow mining. When the mining ceased, pumping was also discontinued and the water seeped back into these old mines and tunnels, becoming highly acidic and contaminated with metals. In addition to mines, the numerous piles of chat were also a source of contamination. This pollution affects groundwater, springs and surface water in this region. (Brosius 2005)

Acid mine seepage in the Oklahoma portion of the Tri-state mining district. Image used by permission of Kallie Moore, taken October 28, 2007.

The EPA began working in 1980 to remediate the water contamination issue and supply communities in this region with safe, reliable drinking water, and the work is still ongoing. Two new wells were constructed into the deep aquifer and a new rural water district was constructed, which currently supplies more than 500 hundred households with a long-term source of clean water. (Brosius 2005)

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Our field trip to the Ozark Plateau region proved to be rather informative and the blimp aerial photography was successful. The aerial photographs clearly showed several interesting aspects of the region, including mining evidence, the forested limestone hills, and the city of Galena. This aerial photography and site examination performed during this trip were fascinating methods for examining a section of Kansas that does not fit the stereotypical view of the state.

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Aber, J.S. 2004. Lighter-than-air platforms for small-format aerial photography. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 107, p. 39-44.

Aber, J. S. 2007. ES546 Project Summary: Kansas Physiographic Regions. Emporia State University. (accessed 8 Nov. 2007).

Aber, J.S. and Aber, S.W. 2004. Kite Aerial Photography Equipment. (accessed 7 Nov. 2007).

Aber, J.S. and Aber, S.W. 2007. Kite Aerial Photography Cameras and Rigs. (accessed 12 Nov. 2007)

Aber, J.S. and Aber, S.W. 2007. Kansas physiographic regions: A reappraisal. Kansas Academy Science, annual meeting (poster).

Aber, J.S., Sobieski, R., Distler, D.A. and Nowak, M.C. 1999. Kite aerial photography for environmental site investigations in Kansas. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 102, p. 57-67. (accessed 8 Nov. 2007).

Brosius, Liz. 2005. GeoKansas: A place to learn about Kansas Geology. Kansas Geological Survey. (accessed 9 Nov. 2007)

Buchanan, Rex. 2007. Blacktop Dreams—Explore Vol. 2 No. 2. Kansas Geological (accessed 9 Nov. 2007)

Charlton, John. 2005. GeoKansas: A place to learn about Kansas Geology. Kansas Geological Survey. (accessed 9 Nov. 2007)

McCauley, J.R., Brady, L.L, and Wilson, F.W. 1983. Study of Stability Problems and Hazard Evaluation of the Kansas Portion of the Tri-state Mining Area: Kansas Geological Survey, Open file report 83-2, 193 p. Available at: (accessed 9 Nov. 2007)

University of Texas at Austin. 2007. What is Karst? Environmental Science Institute. (accessed 9 Nov. 2007)

USDA Forest Service. Ecological Subregions of the United States: Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Continental). Department of Agriculture. (accessed 9 Nov. 2007).

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