The Story of Billy Barr and the Snow Gauge

Dec. 14, 2016

You might have heard of Billy Barr, a Colorado man who’s having his proverbial 15 minutes of fame because of something he’s quietly been doing, year in and year out, for the last four decades.

Barr lives in Gothic, CO, a long-abandoned mining town that’s one of the coldest spots in the country. He lives alone in a small and isolated cabin, skiing out once every couple of weeks in the winter for supplies. The cabin is well stocked with books, and the views outside its windows are breathtaking, but still, boredom sets in. Mostly to pass the time, Barr set up a makeshift weather station next to the cabin, and each day, every day, for the last 40 years he has recorded the temperature and weather conditions, including, in the winter, the depth of the snow, which he measures twice a day. He has years’ worth of notebooks containing neat columns of handwritten figures.

Gothic is also home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a smallish research facility that hosts scientist studying diverse topics such as pollination, high-altitude ecosystems, and climate change. Some of those scientists recently got hold of Barr’s notebooks. In the same way that old letters and diaries can assist historians researching a particular era, the notebooks are providing valuable long-term data on local climate trends.

Some of the datasets are now available online here, including monthly average high and low temperatures going back to 1974 and the number of consecutive days each year the ground has been covered by snow. In Barr’s words, “The trend I see is that we’re getting a permanent snowpack later, and we get to bare ground sooner. We’ll have years where there’s a lot of snow on the ground and then we lose snow sooner than in years that had a lot less snow just because it’s a lot warmer now.”

A production company made a short film, The Snow Guardian, featuring Barr and his activities. As the film’s narrator points out, in a typical year you might see four or five record-high temperatures; last year, Barr recorded 36. You can see the film, which is just under five minutes long, here.

The Snow Guardian from Day’s Edge Productions on Vimeo.

The film also contains some down-to-earth advice from Barr, which the filmmakers apply to the process of adapting to climate change. Of living in his icy environment, Barr says, “Actually, learning to fall is probably the most important thing. If you’re going to fall, sit. It’s a lot easier to fall on your butt than on your face.”

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.