Aspen and the End of Snow
Credit: Photograph by Erik Johansson

The people who best understand what is happening to Aspen – and what is going to happen to the American West in the years ahead – live just over the mountains, in a former ghost town called Gothic.

You can drive to Gothic from Aspen, but it is nearly as fast to walk. If you hike to Maroon Bells and keep going, over West Maroon Pass and down the other side, you descend, several hours later, into East River Valley. This valley, widening and deepening as it goes, follows its river four miles to the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, and in another four miles spills into the town of Crested Butte. Gothic is hidden at the top of this valley, 9,485 feet above sea level and invisible to the rest of civilization. It lies near the end of a dirt road that is impassable for six months a year. The rest of the year it serves as the campus of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced "rumble"), one of the leading research field stations in the world – "geek camp for scientists," as one put it. Every summer some 40 scientists and 40 graduate students gather to conduct experiments in the valley and mountains surrounding the campus. Although the scientists come from many disciplines – particularly botany, ecology, and evolutionary biology – those who have spent enough time at RMBL have inevitably found themselves becoming experts in a new discipline: climatology.

David Inouye, a pollination biologist who teaches at the University of Maryland, has for 43 consecutive summers come to Gothic to observe its wildflowers. Inouye's goal, when he began the experiment as a graduate student, was to understand how flower populations change over time – how many flowers each species produces, when they bloom, and how the populations vary each year. "Nobody ever thought about climate change in the early Seventies," Inouye tells me. "But the context of the study has changed." We were inspecting one of his 48 test plots, a dense thicket of lupine, American vetch, meadow rue, and bluegrass. Every day his student assistants count every flower in every plot. As the summer has crept earlier, the flowers have been blooming sooner. The trigger, Inouye has discovered, is the date of snowmelt. He used to be able to travel to Gothic once his semester ended. Now he has to send an assistant to Gothic weeks ahead of him, since the melt occurs while school is still in session.

When Inouye's assistant arrives in the spring, she is greeted by Gothic's only permanent resident, Billy Barr, who has lived here since 1973. Barr looks exactly how you might imagine a man to look if he had spent 40 years in a cabin in the middle of the Rockies, surrounded by mountains and snow. He looks like mountains and snow: craggy features, with stringy white hair that hangs to his shoulders, and a stringy white beard. He lives in the most distant of Gothic's several dozen wooden cabins, some of which date to the 19th century. At the end of autumn, Barr stockpiles enough food to last the winter. When he desires a vacation, he skis four miles to the paved road, where he waits for a bus to Crested Butte, and then switches to another bus to Gunnison, where he spends the night. But he doesn't leave Gothic often. "Everyone has this idea," he tells me, "sitting in a comfortable chair in your cabin, reading a book, with the snow falling softly outside. The truth is, it's boring as shit. But I like it."

Barr, who is now RMBL's accountant, has accidentally managed to create one of the most valuable climate databases in the world. Ever since his arrival in Gothic four decades ago, he has kept a weather journal. He makes observations about the quality of light, cloud cover, and wind strength, using a numerical rating system of his own invention. With a pole he measures the depth of snow, and with a snowboard, which he clears twice a day, he measures the daily snowfall; he weighs the snow with a hanging butcher's scale in order to determine its density. Each spring he notes the first appearance at Gothic of the ground squirrel, chipmunk, robin, and red-shafted flicker. For more than three decades, in a separate journal, he kept detailed notes about the avalanches he observed in the valley, about 400 on average each winter. Barr's notes are the most comprehensive data on natural avalanches in the world. Taken together, his journals describe the radical transformation that Colorado's high alpine landscape has sustained in the past 40 years.

Barr's studies are not Gothic's longest-running. Since 1962, scientists have been observing the local marmot population, which has numbered between 50 and 350. Each marmot has, at some point in its life, been trapped and marked with a symbol, using a toothbrush dipped in black dye. Graduate students hike into the hills every day, where they spend hours staring through binoculars at the marmots. They make notes about the animals' behavior, referring to each one by its mark: Smiley Face rubs its cheek on rock. Musical Note pushes Mickey Mouse off rock. Lollipop mounts Sail Boat. There are 51 years' worth of notes like this.

The current director of the marmot study is Dan Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA who was born two years after the experiment began. His interest in the study derives, in part, from its duration. We tend to think of evolution as a process that occurs over millennia, but after more than 50 years, natural selection begins to reveal itself. And the marmots are changing. They're getting fatter. During the past 40 years, their hibernation time has decreased by 40 days – one fewer day per year. With longer time aboveground, the marmots eat more, which makes them more likely to survive the hibernation, but also more likely to be nabbed by a coyote.

Gothic is also the site of the world's longest-running experiment on the effects of global warming. On a sloping meadow several hundred yards above the road, a series of heat lamps dangle from cables over a small plot of land. The lamps warm the ground by two degrees Celsius, the minimum amount by which the planet's temperatures are expected to increase this century. The lamps, which have been on continuously for 23 years, play a trick on the wildflowers. In early spring, the flowers emerge from the ground prematurely, only to wither before the summer rains come. Some species have dwindled, and hardier ones, like sagebrush, have annexed territory, but overall there are fewer flowers. Crested Butte, the so-called wildflower capital of the world, is losing its wildflowers. Colorado is losing its forests. And Aspen is losing its snow.