Gothic resident’s historical records make him an accidental apostle among climate researchers
January 23, 2018
GOTHIC — 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, N.J., 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.
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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.
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