Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

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Environment
4:27 pm
Mon January 6, 2014

Arctic Methane Bubbles Not As Foreboding As Once Feared

European scientists were alarmed in 2008 when they discovered streams of methane bubbles erupting from the seafloor in Norway's high Arctic. This gas, which contributes to global warming, was apparently coming from methane ice on the seafloor. A follow-up study finds that methane bubble plumes at this location have probably been forming for a few thousand years, so they are not the result of human-induced climate change. But continued warming of ocean water can trigger more methane releases in the Arctic, with potentially serious consequences to the climate.

Environment
5:01 pm
Tue December 3, 2013

Ready — Or Not. Abrupt Climate Changes Worry Scientists Most

Puddled meltwater very likely primed this ancient edge of the Antarctic's Larsen Ice Shelf to rapidly disintegrate over just several weeks. This view of the splintered mix of frozen bergs is from a Feb. 21, 2002, satellite image.
Landsat 7 Science Team/NASA/GSFC

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 8:09 pm

An expert panel at the National Academy of Sciences is calling for an early warning system to alert us to abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change.

The committee says science can anticipate some major changes to the Earth that could affect everything from agriculture to sea level. But we aren't doing enough to look for those changes and anticipate their impacts.

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Science
7:38 pm
Mon December 2, 2013

Slashing Fossil Fuel Consumption Comes With A Price

Wind turbines twirl above farmland on the outskirts of Madison, Wis. Not all locals are pleased.
Scott Olson Getty Images

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 8:56 am

Governments around the world have agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That would require an 80 percent reduction in energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide into the air.

Nations are far from that ambitious path. There are big political and economic challenges. But technologists do see a way — at least for the United States — to achieve that goal.

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Environment
5:37 am
Sat November 30, 2013

Tech Leaders, Economists Split Over Clean Energy's Prospects

Andres Quiroz, an installer for Stellar Solar, carries a solar panel during installation at a home in Encinitas, Calif.
Sam Hodgson Bloomberg via Getty Images

Originally published on Sat November 30, 2013 1:17 pm

There is a broad scientific consensus that to keep global warming in check, we need to phase out 80 percent of all oil, coal and natural gas by midcentury. President Obama has set a nonbinding target to do precisely that.

There are technologists who say this national goal is well within reach, but there are also economists who are quite pessimistic about those prospects. And you can find this range of opinion on the University of California, Berkeley campus.

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World
4:45 am
Thu November 28, 2013

By Accident, Scientists Discover Lakes Beneath Greenland

Originally published on Thu November 28, 2013 5:34 am

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Flying to or from Europe, many a transatlantic traveler has gazed down at the brilliant white surface of Greenland and maybe wondered what is beneath those massive sheets of ice. Well, scientists have discovered jagged mountains, ravines that rival the Grand Canyon.

And now NPR's Richard Harris reports that for the first time they've come across some lakes under the ice as well.

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World
4:52 pm
Wed November 20, 2013

At Climate Meeting, Tensions Rise Between Rich And Poor Nations

Originally published on Wed November 20, 2013 6:57 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

NPR's Richard Harris has covered the U.N. climate talks since the first treaty was negotiated in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He's monitoring these new talks, and he joins us now to talk about this long-running argument over climate-related funding for the developing world. Richard, thanks for being here.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: And we just heard Mr. Khan mention this goal of $100 billion in aid per year, starting in 2020. He thinks that's realistic. What does it look like from where you sit?

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Science
5:21 pm
Mon November 11, 2013

Why Typhoon Haiyan Caused So Much Damage

This map from the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory shows the amount of heat energy available to Typhoon Haiyan between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. Darker purple indicates more available energy. Typhoons gain their strength by drawing heat out of the ocean. The path of the storm is marked with the black line in the center of the image.
NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

Originally published on Mon November 11, 2013 7:13 pm

The deadly typhoon that swept through the Philippines was one of the strongest ever recorded. But storms nearly this powerful are actually common in the eastern Pacific. Typhoon Haiyan's devastation can be chalked up to a series of bad coincidences.

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Environment
6:32 pm
Wed October 23, 2013

Delegates To Debate Watered-Down Plan For Antarctic Marine Preserve

A lone emperor penguin makes his rounds, at the edge of an iceberg drift in the Antarctic's Ross Sea in 2006.
John Weller AP

Originally published on Wed October 23, 2013 7:57 pm

Less than 1 percent of the world's oceans are set aside as protected areas, but diplomats meeting now in Australia could substantially increase that figure.

Delegates from 24 nations and the European Union have convened to consider proposals to create vast new marine protected areas around Antarctica.

This same group met over the summer and didn't reach consensus, so it's now considering a scaled-back proposal.

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NPR Story
5:17 pm
Tue September 24, 2013

Quake In Central Pakistan Makes New Island

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 5:52 pm

A large earthquake shook a remote part of central Pakistan Tuesday, and so far local authorities have only reported a few dozen fatalities so far. But according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the death toll could be far higher. The quake also gave rise to a mysterious island off the coast of Pakistan. The island was likely created by frozen methane that was shaken loose by the shaking. It pushed its way to the surface and created a muddy piece of land that will soon be washed away.

Environment
4:01 am
Tue September 24, 2013

How Many Scientists Does It Take To Write A Climate Report?

An iceberg floats through the water in Ilulissat, Greenland, in July. Researchers are studying how climate change and melting glaciers will affect the rest of the world.
Joe Raedle Getty Images

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 10:53 am

Scientists and government representatives are meeting in Stockholm this week to produce the latest high-level review of climate change. It's thousands of pages of material, and if it's done right, it should harbor very few surprises.

That's because it's supposed to compile what scientists know — and what they don't — about climate change. And that's left some scientists to wonder whether these intensive reviews are still the best way to go.

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Energy
5:55 pm
Mon September 16, 2013

Natural Gas May Be Easier On Climate Than Coal, Despite Methane Leaks

A rig drills a hydraulic fracturing well for natural gas outside Rifle, Colo., in March.
Brennan Linsley AP

Originally published on Mon September 16, 2013 7:11 pm

From the standpoint of global warming, burning natural gas can be better than burning coal, a study published this week suggests.

This is a contentious issue among people who are opposed to the natural gas drilling practice known as fracking. That technique involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells to release far more gas than conventional drilling can. Opponents of fracking have been concerned not only about local environmental issues, but also about the potential for methane leaks to make global warming worse.

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Space
5:44 pm
Thu September 12, 2013

See Ya, Voyager: Probe Has Finally Entered Interstellar Space

This artist's illustration shows the Voyager 1 space probe. The spacecraft was launched on Sept. 5, 1977, and as of August 2012, it is outside the bubble of hot gas, known as the "heliopause," that radiates from the sun.
NASA/Landov

Originally published on Thu September 12, 2013 9:34 pm

NASA's two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, have made history in a dramatic fashion by exploring the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Now one of the vehicles, Voyager I, has made another pioneering leap. It is the first spacecraft to leave the vast bubble of hot gas that surrounds our solar system.

At long last, Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space.

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Environment
3:03 am
Tue September 3, 2013

Pollution, Not Rising Temperatures, May Have Melted Alpine Glaciers

The Alps' largest glacier, Aletsch Glacier, extends more than 14 miles and covers more than 46 square miles.
Wikimedia.org

Originally published on Tue September 3, 2013 11:28 am

Glaciers in the Alps of Europe pose a scientific mystery. They started melting rapidly back in the 1860s. In a span of about 50 years, some of the biggest glaciers had retreated more than half a mile.

But nobody could explain the glacier's rapid decline. Now, a new study from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory uncovers a possible clue to why the glaciers melted before temperatures started rising: Soot from the Industrial Revolution could have heated up the ice.

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Environment
3:35 am
Thu August 29, 2013

A Cooler Pacific May Be Behind Recent Pause In Global Warming

Originally published on Thu August 29, 2013 11:47 am

A study in the journal Nature could help explain why the Earth's average temperature hasn't increased during the past 15 years — despite a long-term trend of global warming.

The Earth's average temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But the temperature rise has not been moving in lock step with the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide — mainly from burning fossil fuels — traps heat in the air.

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Environment
5:49 pm
Fri August 23, 2013

The 'Consensus' View: Kevin Trenberth's Take On Climate Change

Originally published on Fri August 23, 2013 9:12 pm

Next month, a scientific committee sponsored by the United Nations will put out its latest assessment of climate change. The report is expected to underscore yet again that climate change is a serious problem and human beings are largely responsible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents a consensus view of hundreds of scientists from around the world. The effort shared the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

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Environment
2:57 am
Tue August 20, 2013

How Extreme Australian Rains Made Global Sea Levels Drop

Heavy rains in Australia in 2010 and 2011 flooded farmland and homes, like these in the Queensland state town of St. George, seen here on Feb. 7. 2011.
Sally Nicol Rigney AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 9:19 am

Global sea level has been rising as a result of global warming, but in 2010 and 2011, sea level actually fell by about a quarter of an inch.

Scientists now say they know why: It has to do with extreme weather in Australia.

The sea level drop coincided with some of the worst flooding in that continent's history. Dozens of people died and torrents washed away houses and cars, forcing thousands from their homes.

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Research News
3:15 am
Tue July 30, 2013

For Some Mammals It's One Love, But Reasons Still Unclear

Golden lion tamarins are one species that are largely monogamous.
Felipe Dana AP

Originally published on Tue July 30, 2013 11:11 am

Fewer than 10 percent of all mammal species are monogamous. In fact, biologists have long disagreed over why monogamy exists at all. That's the subject of two studies published this week — and they come to different conclusions.

Animals that leave the most offspring win the race to spread their genes and to perpetuate their lineage. So for most mammals, males have a simple strategy: Mate with as many females as possible.

"Monogamy is a problem," says Dieter Lukas, a biologist at Cambridge University. "Why should a male keep to one female?"

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Environment
5:29 pm
Wed July 24, 2013

What's Swimming In The River? Just Look For DNA

Biologists normally look for the hellbender slamander, which is known by the nickname "snot otter," under rocks in streams. But now there's a gentler way: They can take water samples and look for traces of the animals' DNA.
Robert J. Erwin Science Source

Originally published on Wed July 24, 2013 7:34 pm

If you want to protect rare species, first you have to find them. In the past few years, biologists have developed a powerful new tool to do that. They've discovered that they can often find traces of animal DNA in streams, ponds — even oceans.

The idea took root just five years ago, when biologists in France found they could detect invasive American bullfrogs simply by sampling pond water and looking for an exact genetic match to the frogs' DNA.

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Environment
7:06 pm
Tue June 25, 2013

Obama's Climate Strategy Doesn't Require Congressional Approval

President Obama unveils his plan on climate change Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The president laid out his plan to reduce carbon pollution and to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change.
Alex Wong Getty Images

President Obama unveiled a sweeping plan Tuesday designed to deal with climate change. For the first time, carbon emissions from power plants would be regulated. The policy, which can be implemented by the administration without congressional approval, calls for a broad range of actions, including steps to deal with extreme weather events that are already occurring.

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The Salt
3:11 pm
Thu June 6, 2013

How To Clean Up Fish Farms And Raise More Seafood At The Same Time

Thierry Chopin from the University of New Brunswick examines a raft that holds strings of seaweed. The seaweed grows around pens of farmed salmon and soaks up some of the nutrients that would otherwise pollute the Bay of Fundy.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Mon June 10, 2013 5:38 pm

Last month, we told you about companies that are growing salmon on dry land. That's an effective — but expensive — way to reduce water pollution caused by fish farms. After all, marine aquaculture provides about half of the seafood we eat.

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Research News
1:18 pm
Fri May 31, 2013

Gizmo Uses Lung Cells To Sniff Out Health Hazards In Urban Air

Adam Cole NPR

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 9:23 pm

Cities like Houston are dotted with air-sniffing monitors that measure levels of benzene and other potentially unhealthy air pollutants. But those monitors can't answer the question we care about most: Is the air safe?

That's because there's no simple relationship between toxic air pollutants and health risks. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill are trying to get a leg up on that problem. They are building an instrument that uses human lung cells to measure health hazards in the air more directly.

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The Salt
1:06 pm
Wed May 15, 2013

Go Fish (Somewhere Else): Warming Oceans Are Altering Catches

Crew members unload a catch of sockeye salmon at Craig, Alaska, in 2005. Researchers say fish are being found in new areas because of changing ocean temperatures.
Melissa Farlow National Geographic/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed May 15, 2013 7:39 pm

Climate change is gradually altering the fish that end up on ice in seafood counters around the world, according to a new study.

"The composition of the [global] fish catch includes more and more fish from the warmer areas, and cold-water fish are getting more rare, because the temperatures are increasing," says Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia, a co-author of the study.

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Environment
8:45 am
Mon April 22, 2013

This Scientist Aims High To Save The World's Coral Reefs

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science takes a water sample during his experiment on part of the Great Barrier Reef. The water is slightly pink because his team is using a dye to trace an acid-neutralizing chemical as it flows across the reef.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Mon April 22, 2013 9:52 pm

Most scientists find a topic that interests them and keep digging deeper and deeper into the details. But Ken Caldeira takes the opposite approach in search for solutions to climate change. He goes after the big questions, and leaves the details to others.

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Health
4:55 pm
Mon February 25, 2013

Increased Humidity From Climate Change Could Make It Harder To Tolerate Summers

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 7:23 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, a story about heat, the sweaty, miserable kind. Heat plus humidity. Working outdoors or playing sports on a hot, muggy day can be dangerous, even deadly. And as the climate continues to warm, being outside will become even more challenging. Those are the findings of a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

NPR's Richard Harris tells us more.

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Shots - Health News
3:34 pm
Thu February 14, 2013

Traces Of Anxiety Drugs May Make Fish Act Funny

Perch exposed to the anxiety drug oxazepam were more daring and ate more quickly than fish that lived in drug-free water.
Courtesy of Bent Christensen

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 5:40 pm

Many of the drugs we take aren't actually digested — they pass through our bodies, and down through the sewer pipes. Traces of those drugs end up in the bodies of fish and other wildlife. Nobody's sure what effect they have.

Now, a paper being published in Science magazine finds that drugs for anxiety drugs — even at these very low levels — can affect the behavior of fish.

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Asia
4:09 pm
Tue February 12, 2013

Did North Korea Test A 'Miniature' Nuclear Bomb?

An official with the Korea Meteorological Administration shows a seismic image of a tremor caused by North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul on Tuesday.
Kim Jae-Hwan AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 1:19 pm

North Korea's latest nuclear weapons test is much more powerful than the previous two, according to estimates made by instruments that measure seismic waves from the blast. It's about the size of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in World War II.

But it's not so easy to verify the claim that the nuclear explosive has also been miniaturized. That's a critical claim because a small warhead would be essential if the rogue regime chose to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Big bombs are easier to make, but they aren't all that useful as a threat.

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Environment
5:11 pm
Wed January 16, 2013

Could Some Midwest Land Support New Biofuel Refineries?

Vegetation like the kind growing here at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station could one day be used to feed small biofuel refineries spread throughout the Midwest.
J.E.Doll Michigan State University

Originally published on Fri January 18, 2013 7:16 am

Millions of acres of marginal farmland in the Midwest — land that isn't in good enough condition to grow crops — could be used to produce liquid fuels made from plant material, according to a study in Nature. And those biofuels could, in theory, provide about 25 percent of the advanced biofuels required by a 2007 federal law.

But there are many ifs and buts about this study — and, in fact, about the future of advanced biofuels.

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Environment
4:49 pm
Tue January 8, 2013

2012 Smashes Record For Hottest Year In The Lower 48

Originally published on Tue January 8, 2013 6:37 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's official, federal scientists say 2012 was the hottest year on record for the Lower 48 States. In fact, the average shattered the previous record set in 1998.

Here's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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Energy
2:38 am
Tue January 8, 2013

Drilling Rig's Thick Hull Helps Prevent Oil Spill

Originally published on Tue January 8, 2013 6:06 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground off Alaska last week is now anchored in a quiet harbor so divers can assess the damage. Wildlife officials say they have seen no evidence of a spill from the vessel, which was carrying tanks of diesel fuel. But the accident does raise questions about Shell's plans to drill for oil in the remote and fragile ecosystem of the Arctic.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

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Science
3:00 am
Tue January 1, 2013

The Year Of The Higgs, And Other Tiny Advances In Science

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs boson on July 4, the long-sought building block of the universe. This image shows a computer-simulation of data from the collider.
Barcroft Media/Landov

Originally published on Tue January 1, 2013 9:44 am

It's a year-end tradition to cobble together a list of the most important advances in science. But, truth be told, many ideas that change the world don't tend to spring from these flashy moments of discovery. Our view of nature — and our technology — often evolve from a sequence of more subtle advances.

Even so, chances are good that this year's list-makers will choose the discovery of the Higgs boson as the most important discovery of 2012.

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