When Boredom Yields Treasure: The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Maureen Leong-Kee CC-BY SA 2.0

He also understood that the male broad-tailed hummingbird’s wings make a whistling sound, and indeed Barr had tracked the bird’s return each spring. Together with Barr’s weather and snow melt, Inouye was able to show how climate change’s impact on a single flower might mean the end of broad-tailed hummingbird migration in the region.

The hummingbird relies on nectar from the glacier lily—so much so that it synced its migration to arrive in Gothic just before it blooms. To adjust to warmer springs, however, the lily now flowers 17 days earlier than it did four decades ago. In two more decades it’s likely the broad-tailed hummingbird will completely miss the glacier lily’s nectar. This widening seasonal imbalance is called phenological mismatch, and has become a major concern as scientists learn more about climate change. In Gothic, this will impact not just broad-tailed hummingbirds, but also butterflies, bees, hibernating mammals, and the animals that depend on all those animals. These same dynamics will play out across the Rocky Mountains, and similar alpine ecosystems across the world.

At The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen reports on Billy Barr, a man who moved into a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in search of solitude over 40 years ago. To avoid boredom, he documented snow levels, animal sightings, and the date flowers first bloomed. “…collectively his work has become some of the most significant indication that climate change is rearranging mountain ecosystems more dramatically and quickly than anyone imagined.”

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