TIME housing

Tiny Houses With Big Ambitions

Is the tiny-houses movement a viable solution for American homeowners?

Anyone who’s been to the suburbs in the past half-century knows that American homes have been getting larger and more elaborate year after year. The average size of new homes has swelled by 50 percent since 1970, despite that the average family size decreased during the same period. And it’s not just here; similar trends have held sway in other prosperous, mostly Western countries.

As with most things, a countertrend, focused on homes that are smaller and simpler than the norm, emerged in recent decades. Sometimes referred to as the “tiny house movement,” the concept describes efforts by architects, activists and frugal home owners to craft beautiful, highly functional houses of 1,000 square feet or less (some as small as 80 square feet). It’s both a practical response to soaring housing costs and shrinking incomes, and an idealistic expression of good design and sensible resource use.

The most ardent advocates and early adopters of the concept were often looking to downsize and simplify their lives, create an affordable second home or find innovative ways to live outside the mainstream. Some small homes are on wheels and therefore resemble RVs, but they are built to last as long as traditional homes. Others represent clever architectural solutions to odd building lots or special design challenges. Aging baby-boomers see them as an efficient way to adapt to their changing needs. Most tiny houses are tailored for middle-class and wealthy families who made a conscious decision to “build better, not bigger.”

But natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and economic catastrophes like the Great Recession inspired many people to wonder if the movement might offer solutions to pressing housing crises, whether temporary or long-term. Cheaper to build and maintain, built mostly of ecologically friendly materials, requiring no building permits and taking up far less real estate than traditional houses, the appeal of “living small” is obvious to many people. Some imagine entire villages built of tiny homes as solutions to homelessness.

The movement itself remains small, however promising. Only about one percent of home buyers today go for houses of 1,000 square feet or less. That may be changing as more people become familiar with the ideas that animate the movement and as middle-class finances remain precarious.

Watch the video above and make up your own mind: Would you opt to live small if you could?

TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass Image courtesy of Robert Clark

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

TIME Environment

Muskies Are Mad for the Moon

Muskie fish
If you want to catch a muskie, try it during the full moon Photo Researchers via Getty Images

The muskie is one of the hardest fish for anglers to land. Now researchers have found that the job might be easier during some lunar phases

The North American freshwater fish known as muskellunge—muskies, for short—are notoriously elusive and difficult to catch. “They’re known as ‘the fish of a ten thousand casts,'” says EPA fisheries scientist Ted Angradi, and an enormous body of lore has grown up around how to improve the chance of pulling one in. One technique—fishing during the full or the new moon—dates back to Native American anglers who fished the muskie’s home waters, mostly in the northern Great Lakes region.

As scientists and avid fishermen themselves, however, Angradi and his fishing buddy Mark Vinson, who studies fisheries out of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Superior Biological Center in Wisconsin, wondered if they could bring some scientific rigor to the question.

The result: a paper titled Muskie Lunacy, which is just out in the journal PLOS One. The moon does give fishermen an edge on snagging muskies (whose formal name, for the record, comes from the Ojibwa word “maashkinoozhe,” or “ugly pike”). “The effect is at the margin,” says Angradi. “At best it improves your chances by five percent. But any little edge makes a difference.”

To put hard numbers to that edge, Angradi and Vinson went to the definitive muskie database, complied by—who else?—Muskies Inc. “We’d been thinking about the moon effect for some time,” says Vinson, “but then we came across this data set that looked phenomenal.” In the end, they crunched 341,959 muskie catch records from 1970 through 2013, which included data on location, date and time of the catch, size of the fish, and more. (Fish-rights advocates please note: more than 99% of the victims were released, which is part of the muskie-fishing ethic. “Anglers consider each fish important,” says Angradi. “It doesn’t make any sense to kill them.”)

In the end, it turned out that the moon really does have an effect. If you fish during the day, as 90% of anglers do, you’ll boost your chances of a catch by 5% if you go out during either the new or the full moon. If you fish at night, you get the same increase, but only during the full moon.

What the study doesn’t answer is why. One theory: “It might have something to do with feeding behavior,” says Vinson. Muskies are top predators, and it could be that the fish they feed on are more abundant during the full and new moon. The two fishing buddies are planning to test that hypothesis by looking at another data set. It’s a catalogue of 50,000 fish stomachs, which could give a clue about whether these tend to be fuller during the relevant parts of the lunar cycle. “These are lake trout,” says Vinson, “but they’re also top predators.” The same behavioral rules, in short, could well apply.

If the theory pans out, of course, it begs the question of why smaller fish are more abundant during the new and full moon. There should be plenty to keep Angradi and Vinson fishing for years.

TIME Environment

Greenpeace Activists Take Over Oil Rig Near Norway

NORWAY-ENVIRONMENT-GREENPEACE
Greenpeace International activists from eight countries scale and occupy Statoil contracted oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen on May 27, 2014 to protest the company's plans to drill the northernmost well in the Norwegian Arctic at the Apollo Prospect of the Barents Sea, close to the Bear Island nature reserve. Will Rose—Greenpeace/AFP/Getty Images

Protestors from eight different countries are responding to an oil-policy reversal from Norway's government

More than a dozen activists from eight different countries have occupied an oil rig in the Barents Sea, as part of a Greenpeace protest against a Norwegian company that plans to drill there.

The protestors decided to board the Transocean Spitsbergen rig — in arctic waters roughly 190 miles off of Norway — after Norway’s government reversed a decision to block oil drilling in the area, Mashable reports.

Greenpeace is concerned that an oil spill accident would cause tremendous environmental damage to the surrounding area and the nearby Bear Island nature reserve, and “could reach the nesting place of a million seabirds in less than a week,” said Finnish activist Sini Saarela, quoted on the Greenpeace website.

Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment told the Wall Street Journal that drilling does not violate “current policy or regulation.”

[Mashable]

TIME Environment

Why ‘Global Warming’ Is Scarier Than ‘Climate Change’

Climate change versus global warming
"Global warming" may be a more engaging term for activists than "climate change" Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The two terms may seem synonymous, but one generates much more engagement than the other

A quick check of the TIME.com archives reveals that I’ve used the term “global warming” in 545 posts, videos and articles—not counting this one. And the term “climate change”? 852 times. That’s not surprising. While the two terms are largely synonymous—which is why there are 472 posts where I use both—”climate change” has become the preferred term for scientists because it better describes the long-term changes in the planet’s climate, which go well beyond simple temperature increase. Scientists use it, and so have I, but most of the time I simply rotate the two terms for variety’s sake.

But it turns out that global warming and climate change evoke very different reactions in ordinary Americans—and for those trying to motivate the public to act on greenhouse gas emissions, using “global warming” could be more effective. In a new report by the Yale Project on Climate Communications, researchers led by Anthony Leiserowitz surveyed Americans and found that “global warming” is used much more commonly than “climate change,” both in conversation and in Internet searches, and that “global warming” is significantly more engaging than “climate change.” That’s because global warming generated more alarming associations, causing survey respondents to think of disasters like melting ice, coastal flooding and extreme weather, while “climate change” generated more banal associations with generation weather patterns. “Global warming” was also associated with:

  • Greater certainty that the phenomenon was happening
  • Greater understanding that human activities were the primary driver of warming, especially among political independents
  • A greater sense of personal threat, as well as more intense worry about the issue
  • A greater sense that people are being harmed right now by warming, and a greater sense of threat to future generations
  • Greater support for both large and small-scale actions by the U.S. (although “climate change” generates more support for medium-scale efforts, especially among Republicans.)

That last bit is especially important. As the report’s authors note, some environmentalists have come to think “climate change” is a more effective term to use with Republicans, precisely because it doesn’t seem as catastrophic as “global warming.” (If there’s one thing conservative climate skeptics like to argue, it’s that environmentalists are constantly overstating the threat of climate change.) But the Yale report found that Republicans don’t really care which term is used, though “global warming” will sometimes generate stronger negative feelings among conservatives. Not that it much matters—a recent Gallup poll found that 65% of conservatives said they were skeptical of climate change, compared to just 24% of moderates and 9% of liberals.

But the Yale report also found that the term “global warming” actually seemed to reduce engagement with Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates:

African-Americans (+20 percentage points) and Hispanics (+22) are much more likely to rate global warming as a “very bad thing” than climate change. Generation X (+21) and liberals (+19) are much more likely to be certain global warming is happening. African-Americans (+22) and Hispanics (+30) are much more likely to perceive global warming as a personal threat, or that it will harm their own family (+19 and +31, respectively). Hispanics (+28) are much more likely to say global warming is already harming people in the United States right now. And Generation X (+19) is more likely to be willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming than climate change.

Scientists take great pride in the precision of their language, sometimes to the point of jargon-filled incomprehensibility. But language matters in politics, too. Just look at the difference between estate tax and death tax, two terms that refer to the same legal act—taxing wealth left over after a citizen dies—and yet connote two entirely different things. The difference between global warming and climate change isn’t that large yet, but environmentalists who want to nudge as much of the public as possible towards action should be careful which one they use.

TIME Environment

Your Ant Farm Is Smarter Than Google

Ants carry leaves to their nest
As a collective, ants are efficient and surprisingly intelligent Moment Select via Getty Images

Ant colonies are surprisingly efficient at forming intelligent networks that can rapidly spread information, according to a new study

Ants may have the largest brains of any insect, but that doesn’t mean a single ant on its own is all that smart. As individual ants leave their nest in search of food, they walk in what appear to be random paths, hoping to come across something to eat. The behavior of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys. The ants will search for food until they’re exhausted, then return to the nest to briefly eat and rest before heading back out again.

But as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes clear, something amazing happens when an individual ant finds a food source. The ant will take a bit of the food back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them to mark the path. A wave of ants will then attempt to follow the path back to the food source, but because pheromones evaporate quickly, their behavior will still look chaotic as they attempt to home in on the food.

Over time, though, the ants will organize their search, optimizing the best and shortest path between the food and the nest. As more ants follow the optimal path back and forth, they leave more and more pheromones, which in turn attracts more and more ants, creating a self-reinforcing efficiency effect. The chaotic, seemingly random foraging of individual ants is replaced with organized precision. Working as one, the ants create the sort of distribution networks a traffic engineer could only dream of.

“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” said study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseaerch, in a statement. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network.”

That’s not all the study found. The researchers also discovered that individual ants differ in their ability to find food. Over time older ants gather more experience about the environment surrounding their nests, which makes it easier for them to forage effectively, even though their age means they tire faster than young ants. The young ants are more like interns—their lack of experience means they can’t contribute much to foraging, but they are effectively learning on the job. (No word on whether they get course credit.)

Even though individual ants can get smarter over time as they learn more about their surrounding environment, the real ant intelligence is in the collective. Just how advanced are their search capabilities? Good enough to rival our best technology, at least. Google’s search engine forages for information on the Web in much the same way an ant colony looks for food. Google’s webcrawlers scour the Internet, bringing data about individual pages back to Google’s servers, where that information is indexed, sharpening the company’s picture of the ever-evolving Internet as it is—just as ants learn more and more about their environment over time. Google’s search algorithms use hundreds of signals to find the most efficient and accurate answer to any search query—just as the ant colony quickly organizes itself to find the most efficient path to a food source once it has been discovered by scouts.

But Kurths believes that ants are actually much more efficient at organizing data than a collective of human beings using the Internet could ever be, as he told the Independent:

I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.

Which doesn’t mean you should ask the closest ant colony, rather than Google, when you want to find out what time the Super Bowl is on. But in a digitally connected world where the network is quickly becoming smarter and more efficient than any individual, ants are apparently ahead of the game.

TIME Environment

‘Time Is Running Out’ To Stop Rising CO2 Levels, Says UN

April was the first time the monthly average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, a threshold that the U.N. says has "symbolic and scientific significance"

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high last month, according to the UN’s weather agency, highlighting the need to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Monday that the monthly average CO2 concentration in the northern hemisphere surpassed 400 parts per million in April. CO2 levels have topped 400 before, but this is the first time the monthly average passed the threshold, which the UN says has “symbolic and scientific significance.”

“This should serve as yet another wakeup call about the constantly rising levels of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change,” WMO chief Michel Jarraud said in a statement. “Time is running out.”

CO2 is most responsible for the warming effect on the climate and its concentration in the atmosphere has been increasing steadily over the past decade.

TIME Environment

The World’s Most Endangered Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises

Slow and steady may win the race, but on World Turtle Day, these animals are struggling to survive

Is there anything more harmless than a turtle? (Unless, I suppose, you’re a nice, leafy vegetable.) Turtles and tortoises—the main difference is that turtles dwell at least partially in water, while tortoises live exclusively on land—are slow-moving, peaceful animals whose main form of protection from the outside world is a hard shell. Not for nothing do we have the fable of the slow and steady tortoise winning the race. Turtles have existed in some form for more than 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries the dinosaurs. Long-lived turtles and tortoises are symbols of perseverance in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the rules of the race are changing. Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. The threats are many. The animals are collected by traders, eaten in the wild and in fine restaurants, used as pets or for traditional medicine, and sometimes simply killed. The very adaptations that once made them so successful—their long adult life span and delayed sexual maturity—has made them vulnerable as the world around them changed, mostly thanks to human beings. Climate change threatens them as well—a recent study found that as the water warms, more and more sea turtle hatchlings are being born male, which could eventually make it impossible for the species to reproduce successfully.

A 2011 report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition makes it clear: we need to act now if we’re to save the turtles and the tortoises:

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.

As we mark World Turtle Day on May 23, spare a thought for these armored but endangered creatures.

TIME Environment

Top 10 New Species for 2014

The best of the best when it comes to new life

It may seem a bit early to declare the top 10 new species of 2014—after all, the year is less than half over. But keep in mind that scientists discover an average of 40 new species a day, so there have already been plenty of freshly uncovered life to choose from. This year the list is being released by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s International Institute for Species Exploration—and the timing isn’t coincidental. Tomorrow is the 307th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who laid down the groundwork for classifying life.

And as the list shows, life is diverse. The collection includes a dragon tree, a skeleton shrimp, a gecko and a microbe that likes to hang out in the clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled. But there is still far more life to be discovered—scientists estimate that there are 10 million species remaining to be named and classified, five times the number we already know about. We’d better hurry though—while we discover about 15,000 new species a year, we may be losing up to 100,000 annually to extinction.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser