An amateur scientist began logging snowfall to keep busy. Along the way, he became an unwitting chronicler of climate change in a region known as the water tower for the drying American West.
Billy Barr pauses on the walk to his home in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, Colo. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
GOTHIC, Colo. — As world leaders gathered across the globe this month to discuss a climate crisis that is rapidly heating the Earth, Billy Barr, 71, paused outside his mountainside cabin to measure snow. His tools were simple, the same he’d used since the 1970s. A wooden ruler plunged into white flakes accumulating on his snow board — an old freezer door affixed to legs of plastic piping and wood — showed two inches. A section of snow that he slid into a metal bucket and hung from a scale a few paces away told him it was about 10 percent water, which did not surprise him. For years, that number hovered around 6 percent, but snow here has gotten wetter.
“One year could easily be a fluke. I mean, weather is weather, it changes all the time. But all of a sudden, we’ve had five years in a row,” said Barr, dingy face mask dangling over his white beard. “So that’s starting to get significant.” These measurements would be a few more data points in nearly five decades of records Barr has kept since leaving urban New Jersey to become the sole year-round resident of this abandoned silver mining town nearly 10,000 feet high in the Rockies. Back then, he wrote his observations — temperatures, snow, the sight of a gray jay or the tracks of a red fox — in small round script in steno notepads, to keep busy in a place he came to be alone.
“Cloudy all A.M.,” he wrote on Nov. 4, 1973. “7¾” snow. 5⅜” presently on ground by night.” Along the way, Barr became an unwitting chronicler of climate change, the amiable keeper of an analog data set that would eventually inform researchers’ papers on hummingbird migration and marmot hibernation. And he served as a winter pioneer in a mountaintop location whose snowpack, which feeds the Colorado River, is now the focus of urgent attention and scientific inquiry as the Western United States dries up.
An old cabin in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, Colo. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post) Weather monitoring equipment outside of Barr's home. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
It is no coincidence Barr logs his data up the hill from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a field station that comes alive each summer with researchers studying a rainbow of alpine wildflowers and animals, but which has long shut down when the snow comes. Barr, a part-time accountant at the lab, always stayed put, stocking his freezer, stacking firewood, readying his notebooks and waxing skis he put up to 800 miles on per winter. But as he enters his 50th winter in Gothic, change has come, and not just in shorter snow seasons and higher temperatures. All that skiing has left Barr’s legs in severe pain, and though he is planning hip replacements, he worries this might be his last winter here. And for the first time, Gothic is hosting winter researchers — a skeleton staff for a two-year, multimillion-dollar projectusing radar, weather balloons, lasers and other high-tech equipment to better predict how rain and snow ends up as water in the Colorado River Basin. The company might have bothered Barr years ago, but he doesn’t relish the frozen solitude so much anymore. He is, though, determined to keep gathering his data. He says he feels an obligation — to the records themselves, and the precise way he has kept them since the early ’70s.
“The thing is, nowadays, there’s mountain weather stations all over the place,” said Barr, who last winter logged just 200 miles on his skis. “But there aren’t any from then.”
Barr updates weather reports for the day at his home in the abandoned mining town of Gothic. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
The view from Barr's home in Gothic. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post) Barr arrived in Gothic in 1972 as a Rutgers undergraduate helping on a water chemistry project. He stayed until the end of the year, then came permanently the following summer. He’d had terrible luck with girls back home and was miserable, he said. In the mountains, he felt relaxed — even though home was an uninsulated mining shack with a kerosene lamp and a sleeping bag. “I was from an inner city. I’d never been on skis,” Barr said. “I had no idea what I was doing.” But he figured it out. Then, winter residence at the base of the 12,631-foot Gothic Mountain meant occasionally skiing five miles to the paved road, where he’d hitch a ride to Crested Butte, a nearby town, for supplies. In the 1980s, he built himself a more comfortable cabin.
Barr did odd jobs at the lab: dishes, plumbing, helping in the library. He fought fires on a hotshot crew. Eventually, he became the lab’s accountant and business manager. He’d always liked numbers; as a kid, he counted gas stations on family trips.
That’s what inspired his records, not some grand scientific ambition. Over time, Barr found he liked comparing one year to others.
While Barr’s extended focus on winter in Gothic is unique, long-term research is one of the lab’s summer specialties. A marmot study has been running since 1962. David Inouye, a University of Maryland biologist, began his study of the timing and abundance of wildflower blooming in 1973. Yet although he knew Barr, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Inouye got wind of the accountant’s handwritten records. “It turns out that what really sets the clock for all the phenology out there, in terms of flowering and animal activity, is when the snow melts. And Billy had this wonderful data set on not only when does it melt, but when does it start and how does it change from day to day,” Inouye said.
In 2000, Inouye listed Barr as a co-author on a paper about birds and marmots in the Colorado Rockies, which showed, Inouye said, “first, that the climate is changing, and second, that it’s having an effect on the plants and animals out there.” In 2012, Barr was a co-author on a paper by Inouye and others that predicted broad-tailed hummingbirds could by 2033 arrive after the flowering of a key nectar source, the glacier lily, which has bloomed earlier over time because of climate change.
After filling 10 notebooks with his records, Barr now organizes them in Excel and publishes them on his website. Researchers regularly ask him for data, he said, and he always obliges. “I would say it’s because I care about others and want to help them,” Barr said. “But it’s mostly because I’ve never had a social life, so what else do I have to do?”
Barr at his home. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
Barr holds a photo of his younger self. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
A stack of weather notes on a table at Barr's home. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post) But Barr rolls his eyes at the idea that he is a hermit, and at the notion that he valiantly braves whiteout winters. He is gregarious and self-deprecating — a “70-year-old, 5-foot-8-inch, 125-pound superhero,” he jokes. His cabin is basic and messy, but powered by a plethora of solar panels. Starting at 3:30 p.m. each day, Barr does chores, logs data on his computer and eats dinner — a premade packet of Indian food, salad he’s grown in his greenhouse and Newman-O’s cookies.
Evening is for uplifting films in his carpeted movie room — these days, streamed by one of seven services he subscribes to. Barr’s favorite movie is “The Princess Bride.” (He is often asked about “The Shining,” which he has no intention of seeing: “Never horror.”)
On a recent afternoon, as snow slid from the roof past his window, Barr sat at his computer, scrolling through decades of numbers. Next to him was his current notebook, used only for animal sightings, which he has never found the energy to enter into spreadsheets. Today, it showed, he had spotted a Steller’s jay and a crow. In the numbers, he points out patterns. Nearly half the record-low temperatures came in his first decade here, and more than half the record highs occurred in the past one. The years between 1974 and 2000 averaged 10 more days with snow on the ground than the years since. The number of consecutive days when temperatures stayed below freezing has plummeted.
“Back in the ’70s, there were winters where we had well over 100 days in a row where it didn’t get [above] freezing. Last winter, the most was nine,” Barr said. “It doesn’t take much to break that — it could have been 200 days with one in between. But still, there’s a trend there.”
In newspapers, Barr devours wedding stories and typically avoids the nastiness of politics. But he does pay attention to climate news, and he worries. “I really think we’re in a load of trouble,” he said. “And we don’t have much time for this.”
The East River, an important watershed for the Colorado River, snakes toward Crested Butte, Colo. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post).
Down the hill from Barr’s cabin and outside the lab is a new recognition of that: eight white trailers forming the core of the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL), a massive federally funded effort that relies on dozens of instruments measuring precipitation, wind, aerosols, clouds, radiation and more. Much of the equipment arrived in September after deployment on a ship in the Arctic, where it was part of an expedition documenting climate change. It is in Gothic now because climate change in this spot has enormous implications but is not fully understood. Snowmelt here eventually flows to the Colorado River — a key and declining water source for 40 million people in the West.
The campaign builds on an existing study of the East River watershed headed by Ken Williams, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist who is co-leading SAIL. He chose to work here in part, he said, because the area’s diversity — in vegetation, elevation, geology — is representative of mountain watersheds across the West. The lab’s wealth of long-term observations was also a draw — including Barr’s, he said.
“If you’re in the business of trying to understand how ecosystems function now and in the future, you have to have a long record of data against which to compare one year to the next,” Williams said.
But the new project is aimed at the future, gathering an unprecedented array of data that scientists hope will help them model how much water will flow out of here, into creeks and the bedrock below, and out of other Western watersheds.
A weather station at the Crested Butte ski resort, installed by the SAIL research program at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, will help accurately forecast winter precipitation. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)
Paul Ortega, with the SAIL research project, takes notes at the research site at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post). Barr, whose office windows at the lab overlook the trailers, watches this with interest, marveling at the laser a researcher told him can measure the size of snowflakes. He is sure the conditions in Gothic will be less arduous than the Arctic. “It’ll be shoveling snow more than anything else,” said Barr, who has offered some wisdom to project staff. “He actually freezes [eggs] … he scrambles them and puts them in ice trays,” said James McMahan, one site operator who will spend much of the winter in a Gothic cabin. Over time, Barr has added more complex equipment to his cabin-side weather station that can take remote measurements if he’s not around.
If Barr can’t stay, “there’s a good chance the lab will ask its caretakers to pick up some of the things that can’t be measured so easily,” said Inouye. “I think the lab appreciates how valuable Billy’s observations have been, and how important it will be to keep them going.” For now, Barr intends to remain. He just put in a new wood stove. He is considering subscribing to Hulu so he can watch “Happiest Season,” a holiday movie starring Kristen Stewart and Daniel Levy. He is witnessing snow fall here for the 50th year straight.
“My stuff has basically become useless other than the fact that it goes back a good ways, and it’s got easy-to-measure information that we can continue,” Barr said. “I just want to keep it going. It is interesting — it is, I think. And it’s helpful.”