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A rainstorm passes over the Anthracite Mountains near Gunnison. The Gunnison Valley, through which the Gunnison River flows, is a well-watered valley that provides a lush and fertile ground for raising livestock, growing hay and small-scale farming despite its short season and extremes in temperature. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bruce “Barometer” Bartleson pulls a tattered brown folder from a china cabinet and runs a finger down a column of faint figures on the top sheet of paper. He stops on one line: on Dec. 12, 1901, the numbers show, the high temperature in Gunnison was 44 degrees. The low was 22.

Bartleson’s eyebrows go up, signaling, “Fascinating!” If you are a weather geek like Bartleson, every little bit of wonky weather trivia most definitely is fascinating because it can be fit into historical weather-pattern puzzles.

Bruce Bartleson, a retired geology professor at Western Colorado University, shown here in his home-based weather office, has been keeping records on the daily temperatures and precipitation in Gunnison, Colorado for the past 30 years. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bartleson has scads of these records — 118 years-worth of rain, snow and temperature facts — tucked away in an antique-stuffed house where he spends hours poring over weather data in a cubbyhole office just inside the front door. 

Bruce “Barometer” Bartleson loves the history of weather in the Gunnison Valley, but insists he’s not a forecaster. He doesn’t have a barometer in his Gunnison home. And this is the device he uses to measure temperature in his own backyard. (Photo provided by Bruce Bartleson)

He doesn’t do any weather measuring himself. He doesn’t even own a barometer. His only weather “device” is a cheapo hardware store thermometer he calls “the wise old owl” because of a cartoon owl painted on the front. It is tacked on a tree in his yard, and is often accurate, he said, when he compares its temperatures to official readings. 

Much of Bartleson’s historic data comes from the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. He spends hours combing through multiple climate-data collections looking for trends that he can then plot on graphs or turn into logarithms. 

 Bartleson tumbled into this “extreme weather geekiness” (his term) — and earned his nickname — after he retired from Western Colorado University in 1998. He had taught geology, not meteorology, there for 33 years.

His interest in weather hasn’t waned since. It has turned him into the unofficial weatherman of the Gunnison Valley — the guy who constantly gets buttonholed in the grocery store checkout line and the post office lobby and asked about any and every blip and swing and curve in the local weather.

But Barometer Bartleson doesn’t do any forecasting. His expertise is weather history.

He gained weather fame around the Gunnison Valley as the debunker of the long-held and widespread belief that Gunnison is the coldest place in Colorado, as well as being in the running for coldest town in the nation. Over the years, he also has shown that what were believed to be monumental modern monsoons couldn’t hold a candle to the gully-washers in 1911; that this winter’s epic snows were most notable for their moisture content, not their depth; that Gunnison’s notorious winters spike and lull in 25-year cycles; and that neighboring Crested Butte truly is one of the coldest places in the country.

“I have found a lot of mythology and nonsense regarding the weather here,” Bartleson said of his decades of research.

Bad news for the world, good news for gardeners

Bruce Bartleson, a retired geology professor at Western Colorado University, walks his electric mountain bike across Gunnison’s main drag. The avid skier, hiker and mountain biker says the bike allows him to keep up with the 60-year olds. He’s 85. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Most recently, Bartleson used a blizzard of charts and graphs and consultations with “real weather people” to show that Gunnison’s growing season has jumped from an average of around 60 days per year in the early 1980s to nearly 88 days now.

He pulls up graphs on his computer to illustrate that. The most telling looks like a fish: the length of time between killing frosts is pinched into a very short period — the mouth of the fish — in the late 1890s. Through the decades, it fattens and then narrows a bit around four decades ago. Then the first and last frost lines begin to fan out in a fish tail to current times. Another graph plots the number of frost-free days over more than a century. It resembles an intermediate ski hill climbing into current times.

CHART: Growing season getting longer

In a chart based on Bruce Bartleson’s collected data, the growing season in Gunnison — defined as the number of days between the last frost and the first frost of the year — has been steadily getting longer since the 1960s. (Chart courtesy Bruce Bartleson)

That is bad news for a globe that is warming. But good news for tomato growers.

“It used to be that people around here had to have greenhouses or they had to wheel their plants in and out in wagons,” said Bartleson, who, at 85, added that he is too busy biking, hiking, skating and skiing to mess with gardening.

Writing weather columns for the Gunnison Country Times is also part of Bartleson’s busy schedule. That job began when he sent a letter to the Times back in the dead of winter in 2013 outlining why Gunnison could not claim the cold crown — even as residents were shivering through 30-below mornings. He laid out this case using measurements from many sources and overlaying them with historical data.

In a place where puffy coats and wool beanies are wardrobe staples for more months than not, his letter sparked a lot of what-the-heck interest. Barometer Bartleson became a regular weather-facts contributor to the paper.

“As we learned with that first letter, folks are certainly interested in the weather here,” said Gunnison Country Times editor Will Shoemaker. “Readers like the idea of their own perceptions and their memories being stacked up against historical data.”

Shoemaker noted that Bartleson’s columns play especially well in a community where the weather is “talked about ad nauseum,” and that Bartleson’s columns may have contributed to that weather obsession.

CHART: Frost-free days in Gunnison

The number of frost-free days in Gunnison is also rising according to the data collected by Bartleson. (Chart courtesy Bruce Bartleson)

Bartleson’s columns are known for being as humorous as they are professorial and data-loaded. He joked in his most recent writing about how June has been so warm that one of his regular and reliable weather data contributors, Alantha Garrison at the Gunnison County Electric Association, might have become mixed up and taken her measurements from a station in Honolulu rather than Gunnison.  

In his famous cold-debunking column, Bartleson noted that Gunnison’s cold is on par with Talkeetna, Alaska — a fact that surely would have been overlooked without Bartleson’s digging. He highlighted different categories for rating coldness: annual mean temperature; number of days a town was the coldest in the nation; number of days a town was below freezing; and mean temperature only in winter. Gunnison lost out in every category to places like Leadville; Stanley, Idaho; Roseau, Minnesota; and Hannah, North Dakota.

Just a few of the facts Bartleson used, and joked about:

  • Gunnison’s mean annual temperature is 37.5 F. Among those colder is Leadville at 34.2. Fraser at 35.1 and Embarrass, Minnesota, at 34.52.
  • Gunnison is a distant third in number of days being the coldest town in the nation. Stanley, Idaho had 398 days in the top spot. West Yellowstone, Montana had 337. And relatively balmy Gunnison scored the top cold spot only 170 days.
  • Looking at numbers of days per year that a town has below freezing temperatures, a California high-Sierra ghost town called Bodie wins hands down with 308 days per year. Stanley is up there again with 292 days. The list goes on until it gets to Gunnison with “only” 265 frozen days.
  • Gunnison’s mean winter temperature was also a bust. Gunnison’s was 12.4 degrees — a puny showing compared with Roseau’s frosty 5.6 degrees.

Growers listen, but sometimes beg to differ

Some gardeners will argue with Bartleson’s most recent findings related to the growing season. But they defer to him because they know he is armed with historical facts that they haven’t taken time to study while they are busy trying to keep their cabbage and potatoes alive.

With a bountiful harvest, two buckets full of Kale, Susan Wyman, owner of Gunnison Gardens, exits one of the greenhouses on her on her 6-acre organic farm. Wyman, a hydrologist and former civil engineer, teaches a course at nearby Western Colorado University about growing food in a cold climate. “Gunnison has 60 frost-free growing days, maybe closer to 50. You get what you get. You have to work with what you have.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Barometer Bartleson definitely has his finger on the data. But it’s still cold. It’s still difficult to grow here,” said Gunnison Gardens owner Susan Wyman, who has been battling Gunnison’s growing climate for five years. “I had a frost day just last week.”

Wyman’s four acres, where she grows vegetables along the Gunnison River, are in a “frost pocket.” The temperatures there are usually 5 degrees colder than at her house 15 blocks away. There are many such pockets in the valley.

Eric McPhail, director of CSU Extension in Gunnison County, said it is true that there are a lot of micro-climates scattered around Gunnison — places where the Gunnison River increase the temperatures, where asphalt lowers it, and where altitude can make it swing both ways.

But he knows better than to argue with Bartleson’s latest overall growing-season findings.

“I think over the last 10 years we have seen some extra growing days,” he said.  

With the help of her assistant Lexi Hughes (in far back) Gunnison Gardens owner Susan Wyman harvests kale and carrots. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bruce’s wife, Dierdre, is privy to all the charts and data, but she has an extra reason to know that her husband’s weather sleuthing is correct: her daffodils are coming up a month earlier than they used to in a backyard that on a hot summer day is a lush tangle of currant bushes, chokecherries, crabapples and honeysuckle.

In this era of weather also being fodder for furious political debate, Bartleson is starting to encounter some climate-change naysayers who want to quibble about that. As a long-time academic he shakes his head in disgust at refusals to accept facts. Beyond his own figures, he points to others’ findings, including the 2015 Climate Change Vulnerability Study that concluded temperatures in Colorado have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years and 2.5 degrees over the past 50 years. His own data gathering shows that Gunnison should be into one of its 25-year cold cycles now: but, it’s not.

Bartleson tries to avoid those political weather conversations. He would much rather geek out with his legions of local weather-fact fans who are interested in why Gunnison’s weather is the way it is. He likes to talk about the bowl shape of the Gunnison Valley, the prevailing storm patterns, the altitude, the sun angle and the location adjacent to the state’s largest reservoir. He relishes explaining why a rainy period is, or is not, a monsoon and whether Gunnison is affected by El Niño or La Niña global weather patterns. He is happy to describe the North Pacific Oscillation and why it matters to Gunnison.

Just don’t ask him about weather forecasts. Gunnison residents who have buttonholed him over the years for his takes on the weather have learned not to even think about asking him if it will rain tomorrow or snow on the weekend.

“I tell them I don’t forecast: I am a weather historian,” Bartleson explained. “I only backcast.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm