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UB professor pinpoints center of North America - in Center, N.D.

Residents of Rugby, N.D., about 45 miles south of the Canadian border, erected a stone obelisk marking it as the geographical center of North America.

But that distinction should belong to a more aptly named city in North Dakota about 150 miles southwest of Rugby, according to the calculation of a University at Buffalo professor.

Peter A. Rogerson’s new method for determining geographic centers, unlike previous approaches, takes into account the curvature of the earth.

And his math revealed that the exact middle point of the continent is the aptly named Center, N.D.

The 581 people of Center previously thought of themselves as being only at the center of Oliver County, a rural expanse of coal mines and power plants located some 50 miles from any major urban area.

But Center City officials aren’t sure exactly what to make of the Rogerson’s quirky discovery.

“We’re a little apprehensive, because we’ve watched Rugby and the other cities fight over it,” said city auditor Terrie Nehring. “But it’s definitely exciting.”

It turns out that maintaining the center of the continent isn’t easy. Rugby was challenged last July, when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the trademark for the Geographical Center of North America to a bar in Robinson, N.D., which is located about 85 miles south of Rugby and has a population of 37 residents.

Hanson’s Bar co-owner Bill Bender, who also is mayor of Robinson, fastened a large decal to the floor of the bar marking the geographical center, and the town is planning its first “CenterFest” for May.

Rugby, a city of 2,800 people, built its stone monument in 1932 at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and State Highway 3, held the trademark from 1967 to 2009.

Rogerson, a professor of geography, in 2015 developed a technique that uses azimuthal equidistant map projection, combined with a computer program and a special mathematical formula, to determine geographic centers of American states.

After reading about the dispute between Rugby and Robinson in a Wall Street Journal story in December, Rogerson decided to use his method to find the middle of the continent. He never expected the serendipitous result.

“That was a complete surprise,” he said.

The exact latitude and longitude is about 3.3 miles north of the center of Center, but “the mailing address is still Center,” Rogerson said.

Rogerson’s scientific work has varied. He currently is trying to develop new methods for analyzing the emergence of clusters within a set of geographic data, which ultimately could be used to track crime or disease clusters more quickly. He has analyzed the locations of relief agencies operating in the wake of earthquakes, explored elderly population growth, and studied the potential links between breast cancer and exposure to traffic emissions.

He also has been intrigued by geographic centers for a while, in part because of the challenge of determining them.

“It’s a bit of a sidelight for me, but certainly an interesting one,” he said.

Rogerson acknowledged that “there’s some limitation on the accuracy” of any geographical center based on his method, because it assumes that the earth is a perfect sphere, when in actuality the planet has a slightly ellipsoidal shape.

But he said the method is more accurate than those that don’t take into account curvature.
Steve Neibauer, a yard operator at a power plant in Center, likes the sound of the newly discovered distinction for his hometown. “That’d be great,” he said.

Neibauer answered the telephone when The News called the Lone Wolf Saloon looking for some insight about the heart of North America.

Word about Center’s new celebrity already was getting around on social media. Center, which dates back to 1903, is the only incorporated town or city in the entire county. It’s about 50 miles from Bismarck, the closest large city.

“I think they called it Center because it’s the center of Oliver County,” Neibauer said.

City officials have yet to discuss what Rogerson’s findings might mean. They have been busy digging out from a series of storms that dumped as much as five feet of snow, Nehring said. But it’s likely to be a big topic at the next meeting of the city council.

Nehring wants to know if shoreline changes due to global warming will cause the geographical center to shift in a few years. But she’s not opposed to promoting the distinction for the benefit of the city, which relies primarily on the mining and power industries, both of which are susceptible to economic changes.

A little bit of tourism, she said, can’t hurt.

“If it turns that this is true, I’m going to push the heck out of this,” said Nehring. “Something like this is almost like a life raft.”

 

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