Changing Gothic, Changing Lives

By Lili Weir — GOTHIC, CO

How are people living in this former ghost town evolving as the eyes of the world turn to Gothic and Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory for answers to their climate questions?

For the scientists and data collectors who call this one road valley home, the increasing obligation to relay their findings to the general public could change the landscape of their treasured town.

Scientists working at this lab have examined many climate impacts across the high mountains including moving vegetation patterns, wildlife habitat shifts, and changes in precipitation.

 Many of these observations take place over long timescales with careful fieldwork which has created a unique culture of dedicated scientists based out of RMBL.

“I think it’s been a fun place to generate stories about climate change,” said executive director of Rocky Mountain Biological Labs Ian Billick.

More and more people are turning to the scientists and the work that they produce for answers. 

To promote this information exchange, some in Gothic have begun to embrace smaller scale education efforts and more media coverage to distribute their findings. However as this information centered around the lab is shared, members of the community could potentially see an influx of people moving into their mountain sanctuary.

In an age where so much of the narrative surrounding climate change is rooted in political agendas and personal opinions, many scientists search for new ways to engage with the public.

“I think scientists have an obligation to share what they’re learning,” scientist David Inouye said in a recent interview. 

As leading ecologist in wildflower bloom patterns at RMBL, he collects long term data sets and monitors the effects that the climate crisis is having on these ecosystems. His main method of translating his data to a slightly broader audience includes teaching and writing articles in the local paper about the goings on at RMBL.

“I do a lot of informal education,” Inouye said.

As an alternative to Inouye’s method of sharing information, others in Gothic turn to the media to help turn their science into stories.

“Now we have to translate science to the general public,” Billick said.

In an effort to “translate” the work of those who live in Gothic, Billick has increasingly engaged with several recreation industry magazines and news organizations, such as Bike Mag and Day’s Edge Productions, to bring awareness to the work of the researchers in Gothic.

One of these profiles was done on Billy Barr, a Gothic legend and snow data collector for the past forty plus years. 

Barr was featured in a short film about his work with the snowpack levels in RMBL, and the filmmakers dubbed him “the snow guardian.” Since this film was released, a number of people who visit the Gothic Valley keep themselves on the lookout for Barr because his persona has become a cornerstone in the scientific history of RMBL and the work they do.

People want “a feel good story about climate change,” said Billick, and Barr’s long white beard, quirky personality, and solitary lifestyle devoted to nature fit that bill.

With the publics’ interest peaked, Billick foresees more tourist foot traffic, and possible climate refugees, coming into the valley. The implications of an increased population near RMBL could interfere with the many long-term experiments happening in Gothic, and change the lives of those who live there.

As the figurehead of one of these climate stories, Barr’s former life of solo data gathering and Bollywood movies has been altered to include people questioning and engaging with him as a type of celebrity.

Barr can often be seen bundled up in cozy sweaters, chugging along down the only road in the valley with his ski poles. 

In one recent excursion, as he made this routine commute, students staying in the new RMBL cabin for visitors surged towards the windows when one of them exclaimed “it’s Billy Barr!” to try and catch a glimpse of “the snow guardian.”

What other unforeseen changes await the people of Gothic in a future increasingly interested and reliant on the information they possess?

“I think we’re in for an interesting ride,” Inouye said.

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