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Accidental climate apostle

For 40 years, he has recorded weather data above Crested Butte

DENVER – He didn’t mean for it to happen this way. He simply wanted to be alone.

“If I had any social skills at all I wouldn’t be here,” says the reclusive 67-year-old Billy Barr, who has spent the last 46 years in a remote cabin in the snowy woods several miles above Crested Butte. “I’m from inner-city Trenton, New Jersey, which is pretty funny when you consider the contrast.”

Barr began taking notes in 1974 out of boredom. Every day he would record the low and high temperatures, and measure new snow, snow-water equivalent and snowpack depth. Now, he has stacks of yellowed notebooks brimming with a trove of data that has made him an accidental apostle among climate researchers.

“I recorded all this out of a personal interest in the weather. And because I’ve done it for so long, it has some benefit and some value. It wasn’t like I was some sort of forethinker, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to write all this down and have absolutely no life whatsoever so I can stay here for 50 years,’” he says, tugging a gossamer beard dangling to his well-worn cricket sweater.

“Scientifically, my data are good because I had no goals, therefore no one can say, ‘Well, you are just taking data to prove a point.’ It’s just numbers. I just wrote them down,” he says. “It’s the same person in the same location doing it in the same method, so even if I did it wrong, I did it wrong every single day for 44 years.”

He doesn’t necessarily analyze his data. But he’s seeing a trend: It’s getting warmer. The snow arrives later and leaves earlier.

Lately, he’s charting winters with about 11 fewer days with snow on the ground; roughly 5 percent of the winter without snow. In 44 years, he’d counted one December where the average low was above freezing – until December 2017, when the average low was 35 degrees.

More than 50 percent of the record daily highs he’s logged have come since 2010. In December and January this season, he already has counted 11 record daily-high temperatures. Last year, he tallied 36 record-high temperatures, the most for one season. Back in the day, he would see about four, maybe five record highs each winter.

Barr’s data jibe with state and federal studies showing Colorado’s snowpack sitting around the third-lowest on record. Klaus Wolter, a University of Colorado climate scientist in Boulder, recently revised his seasonal outlook for Colorado noting a very low water content in the dismal snowpack, specifically pointing to a second-lowest snow-water-equivalent since 1981 in Barr’s Gunnison River Basin.

The second-year return of the La Niña weather pattern, Wolter wrote, “is playing out in typical fashion, leaving little hope for a recovery to near-normal snowpack or runoff in 2018.”

David Inouye, a conservation biologist who spends his summers at Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, has relied on Barr’s weather data in his study of the timing and abundance of wildflowers, which he began in 1973. He counts on Barr’s wildlife observations as well – a detailed daily analysis of bird and critter sightings that show marmots emerging from hibernation a month earlier than usual and robins arriving about three weeks early.

“Many of the researchers at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in the summer are people (like me) who have made career-long commitments to work at that site, and Billy’s data help many of us to have a climate context for our observations,” Inouye says. “We’re fortunate, for many reasons, that Billy made a commitment to living in Gothic after experiencing it for a summer as an undergraduate student there.”

It was 1972 when the city-boy student came to study in Gothic. He lived in a tent. He loved it so much, he ran home, finished school at Rutgers University and came back to Colorado. One snowy day in November that year, a man visited and asked Barr if he wanted to live in the shack on his mining claim. Despite the lack of running water or electricity, it sure beat the tent.

He spent eight years in that 8-by-10 shack. In 1980, a few pals helped him build a cabin, where he has remained since.

Every morning, he logs his weather data and skis down the hill, where he works full time as the bookkeeper for the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. In the afternoons, he skis up the East River Valley, a calm stroll beneath the prominent buttress of Mount Gothic, which stands sentry over his cabin and the ghost town of Gothic.

After his daily ski, he does some chores around the cabin, logs the day’s second round of weather information and makes some dinner before retiring to his movie room. The theater, lined with more than 2,000 movies on disc, is his daily indulgence.

It takes a couple hours on skis to get from Gothic to Mt. Crested Butte. Last January, following a record-setting snowfall that left the road impassable, he dug in. When the snow started after the New Year, he shoveled eight times before surrendering as the snowpack reached his second-floor windows.

Even with that record January, he says, flipping through his notebooks, the lack of new snow in February and March made the winter end up a tad below average.

He isn’t some huge fan of snow. And last winter was too much, he says. The high pressure system that has stymied snowfall this season across the West, “now that was nice,” he says with a toothy grin. He didn’t escape to Gothic to embrace winter as much as avoid people.

“I don’t go anywhere. I don’t socialize at any time,” he says. “I just don’t enjoy social interaction.”

Last year, a short film featuring his life and weather research – “The Snow Guardian” – became a hit on the outdoor film circuit. He loved the movie. It prompted a steady stream of visitors last season, which he also enjoyed, even though it disrupted his carefully constructed routine. The publicity not only elevated his research, but his undeniable observations on how things are getting warmer. He’s not particularly political, but he recognizes a need to act to preserve winter.

“Let’s say this warming, it’s not our fault, but we go ahead anyway and clean up the air and clean up the water. What did we lose?” he says, sipping from a mug of tea. “Why wouldn’t we do something?”

Feb 6, 2018
La Niña isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon