He measured the snow cover for 50 years. Then her hips gave way.

GOTHIC, Colo. (AP) — Four miles from the nearest clear 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 snow. cool that fell during a day in mid-March.

Billy Barr began recording weather and snow data more than 50 years ago when he was a recent environmental science graduate from Rutgers University in Gothic, Colorado, near part of the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Bored and looking to keep busy, he had packed a rudimentary kit and each day had recorded the inches of fresh snow, just as he had recorded gas station markings as a child on family road trips.

Unpaid, but driven by compulsive curiosity and a preference to spend more than half the year skiing rather than walking, Barr stayed here and continued measuring snowfall day after day, winter after winter.

His faithful measurements revealed something he had never expected in a long time: the snow comes later and disappearing before 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 during the spring and summer to provide a steady flow of water for cities, agriculture and ecosystems.

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

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

Barr is modest about his own contributions, although the snow data, once handwritten and published in his website has reported numerous scientific papers and helped calibrate aerial snow detection tools. And with each passing year, his data continues to grow.

“Anyone could do it,” the self-deprecating bachelor said in a softened Jersey accent. “Being socially inept made me able to do it for 50 years, but anyone can sit there and watch something like that.”

Four miles from the nearest clear 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 snowy day. mid-March.

Two winters ago, Barr’s legs began to buckle with frustrating frequency as he gently skied through spruce trees in search of animal tracks, another piece of information he collects. He feared it might 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 hip replacements to prolong it.”

Two hip replacement surgeries provided a long contract for high-altitude living. Barr skied more cross-country last December than he did the entire previous winter.

“Unless something goes wrong, which it will, but unless it’s serious, I think I can last here a while longer,” he said.

Many things could go wrong. While Barr was sitting on a bench next to the research lab on an unseasonably warm day in March, a heavy slab of snow slid off the ceiling and threw the bench forward, nearly causing it to fall.

Not all risks are avoidable, but some are. If the ski slope is too icy, you will walk parallel on trackless snow to get better balance. He grows produce in a greenhouse attached to his home, and most of his non-perishable produce (stored the previous fall) is organic. Wear a mask when you are with others indoors.

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

For Barr, longevity means more time for the quiet mountain lifestyle he enjoys in his rustic two-bedroom home heated by passive solar energy and a wood stove. She uses a composting toilet and relies on solar panels to heat water, wash clothes and watch movies every night.

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

He’s been testing remote tools for five years, trying to calibrate them with his outdated but reliable techniques. She estimates that it will take a few more years of testing before trusting the new tools, and even then, she fears the equipment will fail.

For now, he measures snow his tried and true way.

Around 4 p.m., he walks uphill from his house to a flat, square board painted white, and sticks a metal ruler into the accumulated snow to measure its depth. Next, she pushes a clear boat upside down in the snow, uses a metal blade to scrape off the rest of the snow, and then slides the blade under the boat to help turn it over. He weighs the snow, subtracting the weight of the boat, 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 wind distributes snow unevenly across the landscape, explained Ben Pritchett, senior forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“Nothing takes the place of watching snow in person to understand how it’s changing,” Pritchett said.

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

“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 very valuable.”

The lab has winter caretakers who could ski a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) to Barr’s house to manually measure new snow at the same site using his same method, but someone would still have to foot the bill for their time. .

Barr is well aware that his humble 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. However, 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 data on the ground to calibrate his model.

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

Between measuring snow and observing animal sightings, Barr created a body of work that no one asked him to assemble and that hasn’t earned him a dime.

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

“I didn’t fit in at all and that doesn’t make me a scoundrel,” 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 designed a lifestyle that goes against social norms, Barr hopes that the high-tech water forecasting tools scientists have today will lead to unconventional solutions to rationing the dwindling resource.

“This could lead to 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 precious than gold.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of environmental and water 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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