He Spent 40 Years Alone in the Woods, and Now Scientists Love Him
But it’s his staggering trove of weather data that has brought billy widespread attention. Drawn to the once-abandoned town of Gothic as a college student of environmental science, billy moved into an old mining shack and later built his own fully solar-powered home.
And since the winter of 1974, the 66-year-old citizen scientist has recorded daily observations of his environment: high and low temperatures; total snowfall; snow depth, water content, and density; and when animals emerge, disappear, and migrate.
What started as a combination of personal curiosity and a lifelong habit of record-keeping—“I have the Philadelphia Phillies baseball statistics from 1961, if you want that,” billy told me—has evolved into an invaluable source of data for scientists of all stripes. Cited in numerous academic publications, billy’s data has proved especially useful for those studying the effects of climate change.
He took a break from his work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory to speak with National Geographic about winter watching (and what to do when you get tired of winter watching).
Okay, so why do you write your name in lowercase?
That's totally meaningless. When I got here in '72 I had a roommate that did that, so I tried it with my name, and it just looked much more comfortable. It felt more like me than these big B’s that stand out. I just started doing it, and then got used to it.
Why did you decide to stay in Gothic?
I was very stressed out. I wasn't a very happy person. It wasn't like, "Oh, I'm cured, I got here, everything's wonderful," but I knew the second I got here—I felt more calmness. So I just wanted to stay here. I thought I could go to graduate school, and come back and do work here, and then I thought "Wait a minute, I'm already here.”
What motivated you to start recording weather data?
When you live in the city, you learn how to cross the street. Sometimes you cross against the lights just because there's no cars coming—you learn about your environment wherever you live. So this was my environment. The snow affects everything I do, then and now.
I was also recording anything I saw—which wasn't much, it's pretty quiet in the winter—but I'd write down every single day what birds I saw, what mammals I saw. I enjoyed it and I was interested in it, so I kept it going, and after decades, all of a sudden it became useful to others.
How did that come about?
At some point in the 1990s, I mentioned to [botanist] David Inouye that I had this. He’d been doing plant phenology for just as long, every summer looking at all the flower progression and activity, year after year after year. And it corresponded with my weather!
He put all that together in a scientific manner, and then passed it on to others, people who are looking at mammal stuff, plant stuff.
I don't sleep a lot at night, and I got tired of lying in bed listening to the news, so a few years back, I started to really look into the data myself. That’s when I started seeing weather trends, plotting out each month of each winter, and so on—the stuff I put on my webpage.
In the time you’ve been keeping these records, have you noticed a shift in the conversation about climate change?
Well, there was no such thing when I started. I'm glad that I had no direction from anything other than curiosity, because I think it’s hard to argue that I'm making stuff up. I mean, I've got 12,000 records.
Climate change hadn't really come up much until about 10 or 15 years ago. That was never brought into my data, other than that I would look at it and see obvious trends. Like, we have 67 record highs in the last three winters alone, and 48 percent of our record highs have been just since 2010. That's in 44 years of records. And 47 percent of my record lows are from the first ten years I did this. These are trends.
Same thing with snow pack. We have eight days less of snow on the ground than we used to. When you talk about plants and animals, that can be significant, especially in high altitudes. It can be positive to some animals, negative to others. Especially if they're migrating and their clue isn't how much snow is on the ground here—their clue is somewhere in Central America. And they come up here and their plants are up and gone.
The fact is the climate's changing whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not. Looking at my records—it's not a straight line. It's 40-some years, not 400, but it is information.
Your records have received a lot of attention. Has that changed anything for you?
I don't think so. It was entertaining to see that stuff on the Internet, especially since it came during the heavy snow periods—it was a nice diversion.
I've been waiting for either Hollywood or Bollywood to call me, but they don't! I don't understand it.
Those first seven years living in an 8-by-10 foot shack—what were those winters like?
It was just so important to stay out here that it didn't seem bad at the time. Now, literally once, maybe twice a year, I'll have a dream where I'm back living in there and I'll wake up in a panic—"Oh my God, not again!" You'd be embarrassed to stack your firewood in it, it was so beat up.
You’re closed in all winter long. I would sit with my feet in the cook stove, because I couldn't really heat the cabin. Just sit there and read. At the time, it was great.
Although I would never want to do it again, living there was interesting because you couldn't keep animals out. So there'd be things coming and going. There was a skunk that would come in, but unlike the pine marten, which is a great climber, it couldn't get out. So I'd get a broom, and just push it out the front door. And then when it was out, I'd whack it in the back so that it would know: "Look, you come in the house, you get hit with a broom." I'd do that a half dozen times.
Eventually, it realized that if it didn't go out of the house, it wouldn't get hit with the broom. So it just planted itself on the floor and would not budge no matter what I did. Finally I pushed it really hard, over onto its back so it couldn't spray—but it flipped right back up and sprayed the house and ran out.
For two days, that was nasty. You gotta remember, I had no place else to go. I put kerosene on the floor and set it on fire to see if I could get rid of the smell. Someone had told me that tomato soup worked to get rid of the odor? Well, it doesn't. I had ketchup, tried that, didn't work.
I made sure the new house I built didn't have any animals coming in.
I'm not nearly done. I've just started this stuff. When computers came out, I started entering the data on Excel, which makes it a lot easier, and I do that every day. A lot of the records that interest most people—well, most people who are interested, not most people, obviously—are online. I have so much raw data, so anything I start new takes a long time.
I have good health. I skied over 600 miles last winter. But I'm also 66, and anything can happen. I plan to stay here as long as I can—at least five more years, so I’ll have data for 50 winters. But hopefully more than that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.