Science Story February 2021
A quiet hero
Hundreds of scientists flood the hills of Gothic every summer to do research in one of the most-studied ecological sites in the world. But come winter, only one man is still standing. He’s made this abandoned silver mining town his home. He’s also made a name for himself without even trying. He’s billy barr.
First things first. Why is his name not capitalized? “Oh, it’s a stupid reason,” he says. “When I got here, I had two roommates. One of them signed his name with all small letters. I tried doing it, and it felt comfortable. A “b” is a big letter when you capitalize it; it’s not that big when it’s small. I just felt more comfortable with it.” Besides, he added, “It fit my personality better. I live a quiet little life, and it just fit me.”
Ironically, billy’s quiet little life has made a huge contribution to climate science. For nearly 50 years, he’s been recording low and high temperatures, snowfall, snow depth, snow density, and water content at his home, nearly 10,000 feet in elevation. He’s also recorded the times animals emerge from hibernation, migrate, and return in spring.
He used to record everything in stenographer notebooks. When computers came along in the 1980s, his records were put on spreadsheets. Now, you can see a trove of data on his website gothicwx.org, including daily weather and snowfall, weekly and monthly weather summaries, snowpack and ground cover, animal sightings, avalanches, and more.
In fact, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is among several agencies that receive his weather data. Dozens of scientists consult his data for their own research projects. Because his meticulous records are nearly half a century old, they’re especially vital for climate scientists.
You can’t observe a change in climate with only four or five years of data. But you can with 50.
It also helps that billy’s a numbers guy. “As a kid, I used to keep track of baseball statistics. If my family went on a road trip, I would write down how many gas stations and which brands we saw,” he said. “I just like keeping numbers.” In the early 1980s, he took a job as RMBL’s accountant and still does it part-time.
It was a fluke that billy even landed at RMBL. In 1972, he was a student at Rutgers looking for summer work, so he went to the department of environmental science and asked for a job. By chance, the office had just received a flyer from scientists at Cornell who were putting together a group of students for a research project. They needed someone to do water chemistry, which he had studied. When asked if he wanted to do that, billy jumped on it.
“If I had gone in the day before [the flyer arrived] or the day after, it could have been taken,” he said. “I was lucky.”
So in May 1972, billy moved into a cabin at RMBL. But instead of going back to school in August, he moved into a tent. In October, the owner of an old mining shack offered to let billy stay there. Then in mid-December, he decided to go back and finish his last semester of college. After he graduated, he moved back into the shack and lived there eight years.
Life in the dilapidated shack got old, especially having to share it with animals, including a skunk who refused to move out. In 1980, billy built a fully solar-powered home, where he lives now.
Being Gothic’s only permanent resident, billy has made friends with quite a few RMBL scientists. One of them is ecologist David Inouye, who started one of the longest-running studies at the lab, the wildflower Phenology Project. Oddly, the two were friends for years before David discovered that billy had decades of priceless environmental data. David used that data in several studies and shared it with other scientists, many of whom have cited billy’s records in academic publications.
Five decades of environmental statistics can reveal undeniable trends in climate change, the most obvious being warming. In this alpine ecosystem, most of the record high temperatures have occurred in the last decade, while most of the record lows happened in the first decade billy recorded. Now, there are fewer days of permanent snowpack, and the snow is denser, which makes avalanches potentially larger, more dangerous, and in certain conditions more likely.
What’s more, spring is coming earlier, causing plants to bloom sooner and throwing off the cycles of the animals that depend on them.
Put decades of weather statistics alongside decades of changes in animal behavior, and you begin to see the documented effects of climate change. You get a picture of the world that’s coming.
With this awareness, billy has given a lot of thought to how his work will continue when he can no longer do it. At 70, he knows that Gothic winters will be harder and harder to manage. And remote monitoring cannot yet replicate the accuracy of manual measuring.
Still, he won’t quit anytime soon. It’s too fun. “I enjoy the data,” he said. I enjoy looking at it and having it, and I feel like at least in a little way, I’ve helped some other people.”
billy barr first arrived in Gothic in May 1972 as part of a research team. He later worked for RMBL as a librarian, dishwasher, plumber, electrician, and phone line technician. He was a member of the Crested Butte Hotshot firefighting team for five years. In 1980 he became RMBL’s business manager and has done accounting for the lab since then. He lives in Gothic year-round and collects weather data on the side. He also skis and watches movies and cricket.