Making a Contribution to Science

The town site of Gothic in 2010, crowned with a rainbow. The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is a premier scientific research facility, set in an old silver-mining ghost town. A weather station sits up on the hill in the background.

The town site of Gothic in 2010, crowned with a rainbow. The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is a premier scientific research facility, set in an old silver-mining ghost town. A weather station sits up on the hill in the background.

In May of 1972, a young man from New Jersey came out to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), a mining town turned to a ghost town and then turned outdoor research laboratory in the scenic town of Gothic, Colorado. Billy Barr originally came for a summer research experience, and came back the next summer. In 1973, Billy stayed in a mining shack and stayed there for the next 8 winters, until he bought land near the town site and built a house in 1980. Billy has been there ever since, serving as a winter caretaker for RMBL for over 40 years. Other than chores and skiing, there are few sources of entertainment in winter in a ghost town, so Billy began to take notes on the interesting things around him – the animals and the weather.

Billy Barr at his home below Gothic Mountain. Photo by Morgan Heim / Day’s Edge Production, courtesy of The Atlantic.

Billy Barr at his home below Gothic Mountain. Photo by Morgan Heim / Day’s Edge Production, courtesy of The Atlantic.

Billy recorded daily low and high temperatures, new snow, water content of new snow and snow depth, and any animal he saw that day.  A researcher from University of Maryland, Dr. David Inouye, had begun studying flowering phenology and pollinators in 1972, and their two datasets combined were an invaluable resource for assessing climate change and phenology across decades.  Dr. Inouye and Billy Barr combined efforts with other researchers to produce several manuscripts about flowering phenology in relation to snowmelt, and how that affects altitudinal migrants and hibernating mammals (see, “Climate change is affecting altitudinal migrants and hibernating species” and “Asynchronous changes in phenology of migrating Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and their early-season nectar resources”).

Elephant’s head flower. Long-term data on snowpack, weather, and flowering phenology was used at RMBL to track impacts of climate change.

Elephant’s head flower. Long-term data on snowpack, weather, and flowering phenology was used at RMBL to track impacts of climate change.

The data that Billy began collecting out of interest and for entertainment has been an important data set for climate change research at high altitude sites, and paired with other data it becomes even more powerful.  Part of why Barr’s data is so useful is the duration.  Few studies document anything with such depth and consistency over a long time period – but this type of information is critical to understanding patterns and trends in nature.  Examples of other long-term data sets include the Breeding Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count, and Hawk Watch.

Sunflowers below Gothic Mountain

Sunflowers below Gothic Mountain – abundance of flowers and timing of flowering are both related to snowpack. These relationships were tied together with Billy Barr and Dr. Inouye’s long-term data sets.

Long term data sets are critical for monitoring the natural world, from understanding the impacts of climate change on phenology of plant and animal emergence, to evaluating the declines of populations.  Some long-term data sets you can help collect data for include the North American Breeding Bird Survey (initiated in 1966), the Christmas Bird Count (initiated in 1900), and Hawk Watch (initiated in 1986).  If you are interested in working with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies on collecting citizen science data, some of the programs to consider include Bald Eagle Watch, Hawk Watch, Colony Watch, the Eastern Screech-Owl Project, Barrow’s Goldeneye Count, the Colorado Bluebird Project, and the Master Naturalist Program.  These programs help to collect long-term data to assess population trends and migration information.  Anyone can contribute valuable data to long-term data sets – and this information is critical to understanding patterns in our natural world!