A citizen scientist measured Rockies snowfall for 50 years. Two new hips help him keep going

GOTHIC, Colo. (AP) – Four miles from the nearest plowed road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a 73-year-old man with a billowing gray beard and two new hips walked through his front yard to measure freshly fallen snow. mid-March.

Billy Barr began recording snow and weather data more than 50 years ago as a newly minted environmental science graduate from Rutgers University in Gothic, Colorado, near some of the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Bored and wanting to be busy, he had rigged basic equipment and every day he was logging an inch of fresh snow, just as he had logged gas station brands as a kid on his family road trips.

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

His faithful measurements showed something that was not expected long ago: snow is coming later and leaving earlier as the world warms. That’s a concern for millions of people in the drought-stricken Southwest who rely on mountain snowpack to melt slowly during the spring and summer to provide a steady stream of water for cities, agriculture and ecosystems .

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

So-called “citizens” have long played a role in providing feedback on counting plants and wildlife to help researchers better understand the environment.

Barr is modest about his offense, although the snow data published on his single-handwritten website have informed dozens of scientific papers and helped calibrate aerial snow-detecting instruments. And with each passing year, its data continues to grow.

“Anybody could do it,” said the self-deprecating Bachelor with a softened Jersey accent. “Being socially inept has allowed me to do it for 50 years, but anyone can sit there and watch something like that.”

Two winters ago, Barr’s legs began to throb frequently in frustration as he skied mellow loops through spruce trees looking for animal tracks—another data point he collects. He feared it would be his last year at Gothic, a former mining town turned research facility owned by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where he worked full-time for years and is now a part-time accountant.

“I was running out of time to live here,” he said, “That’s why I went through the replacement hips to extend it.”

Two hip replacement surgeries provided an extended lease on living at height. Barr skied more cross-country last December than he did the entire winter before.

“Unless something else goes wrong, which it will, but if it’s not severe, I think I can live here a little longer,” he said.

A lot could go wrong. As Barr sat on a bench near the research lab on an unseasonably warm March day, a heavy slab of snow slid off the roof and sent the bench forward, nearly causing him to fall.

Not all risks can be avoided, but some are. If the ski run is too icy, he will walk parallel to the snow without track to get a better footing. He grows produce in a greenhouse attached to his house, and most of his non-perishables – stocked the previous harvest – are organic. He wears a mask when he is around other people indoors.

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

For Barr, longevity means more time for the quiet mountain lifestyle he enjoys from his two-room country house heated by passive solar and a wood stove. It uses a composting toilet and relies on solar panels to heat water, do laundry and enable late-night movie viewing.

When he finally gets out of the mountains, Barr hopes to continue most of his long-running weather collection remotely.

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

Currently, he measures snow in his tried and true way:

Around 4 pm, he walks up the hill from his house to a flat, square board painted white, and sticks a metal ruler into accumulated snow to measure its depth. He then places a clean canister upside down in the snow, uses a metal sheet to scrape off the rest of the snow, then slides the sheet under the cone to transfer it. It weighs the snow, drawing the weight of the mixture, allowing it to calculate the water content.

For now, manual measurement is still the best method, scientists say. Automated snow measurements introduce a degree of uncertainty such as how wind blows snow unevenly across the landscape, explained Ben Pritchett, senior forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“There’s nothing like seeing snow in person to understand how it’s changing,” Pritchett said.

But Barr’s data-gathering 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 endeavors, we would absolutely continue the research and data collection,” said Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. “It would be invaluable.”

The lab has winter rangers who could ski the half mile (.8 kilometers) to Barr’s house to manually measure new snow at the same location with the same method, but someone would still have to foot the bill for some time.

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

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

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

Between measuring the snow and noting the sightings of the animals, Barr created a body of work that nobody asked him to put together and didn’t give him a dime.

Although it helped inspire scientists working with the nearby mountainside lab, 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 was overwhelmed by social expectations.

“I didn’t fit into anything and it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “You have to look for things that will work for you. And sometimes that means trying different things and going to different places.”

Just as he engineers a lifestyle that defies societal norms, Barr hopes that the high-tech water forecasting tools scientists have today will lead to unconventional solutions to harnessing the dwindling resource.

“It could be things like, well, we can’t have green lawns in central Arizona anymore, because that’s not a good use of the limited water resource,” Barr said. “And water is more valuable than gold. “


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation to cover water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all matters. For all AP environment coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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