The Snow Guardian: The Hermit Who Inadvertently Recorded Climate Change
For more than 40 years, billy barr lived alone in the Colorado mountains keeping track of the snow and providing a wealth of information to science.
The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…
—Henry David Thoreau
Gothic, Colorado, is one of the coldest, loneliest places in the United States. A ghost town abandoned in the 1920s, it’s also home to billy barr (in lowercase, as he prefers it). He’s better known, though, as the “The snow guardian.” The mountain hermit arrived at the site 44 years ago, and one day, to avoid boredom, he decided to record the daily weather. What began as personal curiosity grew into a record used today by dozens of scientists to study climate change and its effects on the planet.
It all began in 1972 when billy was 21 years old. A student of environmental science, he arrived in Gothic to spend a summer. He never left but became the town’s only inhabitant. Barr worked for the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), dedicated to the study of the ecosystem and geography of the Rocky Mountain region. During his first months there, he lived in a tent, then moved into a small hut with neither electricity nor water. He described his first year in the mountains as the time when he grew accustomed to being a hermit, to stillness, and to solitude.
A singular man, barr began in the kitchen of the RMBL doing maintenance work. In the 1980s, he became the laboratory accountant and built the house he lives in even today. For more than 40 years, he measured snow levels twice each day (morning and evening). He also measured the temperature and noted the weather and the presence of plants or animals. He recorded all of this information in notebooks which he filled in about three years, and in which he developed a numerical code; his own language.
It was only towards the end of the 1990s that a scientist with the RMBL learned of the existence of barr’s notebooks. The information in them has been used since then in dozens of studies on climate change and its effect on plant and animal populations in the region. It represents an invaluable record, for when barr began the record, the world wasn’t yet concerned with global warming. What this accidental meteorologist recorded is worrying: temperatures increased rapidly, winters are much shorter, and plants and animals in the mountains are among those most affected.
The importance of barr’s unique task can only be compared to the beauty of the monotony of his routine. The house of his winter hermitage – where he keeps an impressive collection of hats and caps – is 16 kilometers from the nearest town. Every two weeks, he braves the snow on his skis to buy groceries. The cabin is equipped with solar panels, a greenhouse where his vegetables grow, and a room where he watches Bollywood films, his favorites. Barr’s small pleasures are enviable: he enjoys reading and drinking tea in the cold evenings (which includes nearly all of them).
As if he’d guessed what was to come, barr compiled vital information for the future of the planet with but little regard for his own existence (reminding one of Russian meteorologist, Vyacheslav Korotki, one of the last on-site meteorologists at the North Pole). Poetic in so many ways, this lonely man is, finally, a translator of nature, of a sacred language we can no longer ignore.
The following video, directed by Morgan Heim, paints a brief portrait of the man, the snow guardian.
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