Citizen scientist has measured snowfall in the Rockies for 50 years. Two new hips help him keep going

By | April 3, 2024

GOTHIC, Colo. (AP) – Four miles from the nearest plowed road, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a 73-year-old man with a flowing gray beard and two replaced hips trudged across his front yard to measure the fresh snow that fell during a mid-March day .

Billy Barr first started recording snow and weather data more than 50 years ago when he had just graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in environmental sciences in Gothic, Colorado, near part of the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Bored and trying to keep busy, he had rigged up rudimentary equipment and noted down the inches of fresh snow each day, just as he had noted down the brands of gas stations on family outings as a child.

Unpaid, but driven by compulsive curiosity and a preference to spend more than half the year on skis rather than on foot, Barr stayed here and continued to measure the snowfall day after day, winter after winter.

His faithful measurements revealed something he never expected long ago: snow arrives later and disappears earlier as the world warms. That’s a worrying sign for millions of people in the drought-stricken Southwest, who rely on mountain snowpack to slowly melt throughout the spring and summer to provide a steady flow of water to cities, agriculture and ecosystems.

“Snow is a physical form of a water reservoir, and if there’s not enough of it, it’s gone,” Barr said.

So-called “citizen scientists” have long played a role in making observations about plants and counting wildlife to help researchers better understand the environment.

Barr is modest about his own contributions, although the once handwritten snow data published on his website has inspired countless scientific papers and helped calibrate airborne snow sensors. And with each passing year, its data continues to grow.

“Anyone could do it,” said the self-deprecating single with a soft Jersey accent. “Because I was socially inept, I could do it for 50 years, but anyone can sit there and watch something like that.”

Two winters ago, Barr’s legs began to buckle frustratingly often as he skied gentle loops through spruce trees looking for animal tracks — another data point he’s collecting. He feared this would be his last year in Gothic, a former mining town converted into a research facility owned by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where he worked full-time for decades and is now a part-time accountant.

“I was running out of time to live here,” he said. “That’s why I had a hip replacement to lengthen it.”

Two hip replacement surgeries resulted in an extended lease for living at high altitude. Barr skied more last December than the entire winter before.

“Unless something else goes wrong, which will happen, but unless it’s serious, I think I can hang in here for a while,” he said.

A lot can go wrong. As Barr sat on a bench next to the research lab on an unseasonably warm day in March, a thick layer of snow slid off the roof and launched the bench forward, nearly causing him to fall.

Not all risks are avoidable, but some are. If the ski slope is too icy, it runs parallel in trackless snow to get better footing. He grows produce in a greenhouse attached to his house, and most of his nonperishables, which he stockpiled last fall, are organic. He wears a mask when he is around others indoors.

“I can’t get respiratory disease at this altitude,” he said.

For Barr, longevity means more time for the quiet mountain lifestyle he enjoys from his rustic two-bedroom home, heated by passive solar and a wood-burning stove. He uses a composting toilet and relies on solar panels to heat water, do laundry and power his nightly movie watching.

When he eventually retires from the mountains, Barr hopes to continue most of his long-running weather collection remotely.

He has been testing remote tools for five years and trying to calibrate them according to his dated but reliable techniques. He thinks it will take a few more years of testing before he will trust the new tools, and even then he fears equipment failure.

For the time being, he measures snow in his proven way:

Around 4 p.m., he walks uphill from his house to a flat, square board painted white, and sticks a metal ruler into piled snow to measure its depth. He then pushes a clear bus upside down in the snow, uses a piece of metal to scrape away the rest of the snow, then slides the plate under the bus to turn it over. He weighs the snow and subtracts the weight of the bus, allowing him to calculate the water content.

So far, manual measurement remains the best method, scientists say. Automated snow measurements introduce a degree of uncertainty, such as how the wind spreads snow unevenly across the landscape, explains Ben Pritchett, senior forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“Nothing replaces personally observing snow to understand how it changes,” Pritchett said.

But Barr’s data collection has always been unpaid volunteer work — and that complicates any succession plan when he eventually leaves his Gothic home.

“If environmental science were funded the way we fund cancer research or other efforts, we would absolutely continue that research and data collection,” said Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. “It would be super valuable.”

The lab has winter care workers who can ski the half mile (0.8 kilometers) to Barr’s house to manually measure new snow in the same spot using the same method, but someone would still have to foot the bill for their time.

Barr is well aware that his modest weather station is just a snapshot of the Colorado River basin, and that satellites, lasers and computer models can now calculate how much snow falls across the entire basin and predict the resulting runoff. Still, local scientists say some of those models wouldn’t be as accurate without his work.

Ian Breckheimer, an ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, measures snow from space using satellites. Given the distance, Breckheimer needed on-site data to calibrate his model.

“Billy’s data provides that ground truth,” Breckheimer said. “We know his data is correct. So that means we can compare all the things we think we can see with the things we know are correct.”

Between measuring the snow and noting animal sightings, Barr created a body of work that no one asked him to put together and that hasn’t made him a dime.

While it has helped inspire scientists working with the nearby laboratory on the mountainside, Barr said he started measuring snowfall out of a simple desire to relate to the world around him. He felt out of place in the city and suffocated by social expectations.

“I didn’t fit in anywhere and that doesn’t make me a miscreant,” he said. “You have to find what works for you. And sometimes that means trying different things and going to different places.”

Just as he has developed a lifestyle that breaks societal norms, Barr hopes that the high-tech water forecasting tools available to scientists today will lead to unconventional solutions for rationing the dwindling resource.

“It could lead to things like, we really can’t have any more green lawns in central Arizona because that’s not a good use of the limited water supply,” Barr said. “And water is more precious than gold. ”

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for reporting on water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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