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
4:14 pm
Wed February 12, 2014

Risky Tech Fixes For Climate Becoming Likelier, Critic Warns

Clive Hamilton's new book Earthmasters.
Courtesy of Yale University Press

Originally published on Wed February 12, 2014 10:06 pm

Some strategists still see a small window of opportunity to address climate change before the effects become damaging and costly. At least one economist, for example, says we can make a lot of progress if at least half the world agrees to put a price tag on the carbon we dump into the atmosphere.

But some big thinkers also see a grim, potentially dangerous world ahead — one where nations, confronting a climate crisis, will instead reach for a risky technological fix.

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Shots - Health News
3:56 pm
Wed January 29, 2014

Neanderthal Genes Live On In Our Hair And Skin

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 11:11 am

Neanderthals died out long ago, but their genes live on in us. Scientists studying human chromosomes say they've discovered a surprising amount of Neanderthal DNA in our genes. And these aren't just random fragments; they help shape what we look like today, including our hair and skin.

These genes crept into our DNA tens of thousands of years ago, during occasional sexual encounters between Neanderthals and human ancestors who lived in Europe at the time. They show up today in their descendants, people of European and Asian descent.

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Science
3:44 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Ancient And Vulnerable: 25 Percent Of Sharks And Rays Risk Extinction

Each year, 6 to 8 percent of the global population of sharks and rays gets caught, scientists say. The fish can't reproduce fast enough to keep pace
Mike Johnston Flickr

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 9:23 am

There are more than a thousand species of sharks and rays in the world, and nearly a quarter of them are threatened with extinction, according to a new study. That means these ancient types of fish are among the most endangered animals in the world.

This word comes from a Swiss-based group called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the so-called Red List of species threatened with extinction.

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Science
3:27 am
Thu January 16, 2014

An Old Tree Doesn't Get Taller, But Bulks Up Like A Bodybuilder

The world's biggest trees, such as this large Scots pine in Spain's Sierra de Baza range, are also the world's fastest-growing trees, according to an analysis of 403 tree species spanning six continents.
Asier Herrero Nature

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 9:12 am

Like other animals and many living things, we humans grow when we're young and then stop growing once we mature. But trees, it turns out, are an exception to this general rule. In fact, scientists have discovered that trees grow faster the older they get.

Once trees reach a certain height, they do stop getting taller. So many foresters figured that tree growth — and girth — also slowed with age.

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The Salt
11:05 am
Wed January 8, 2014

Whales, Dolphins Are Collateral Damage In Our Taste For Seafood

A sperm whale entangled in a drift net. A report says commercial fisheries around the world kill or injure 650,000 mammals a year.
Alberto Romero Marine Photobank

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 10:29 pm

Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are injured or killed every year by fishermen around the world. And because most seafood in the U.S. is imported, that means our fish isn't as dolphin-friendly as you might expect.

Under pressure from conservation groups, federal regulators are preparing to tighten import standards to better protect marine mammals.

There was a time, more than 40 years ago, when U.S. fishermen killed millions of dolphins while fishing for tuna. After a public backlash, fishermen figured out how to minimize that so-called bycatch.

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Science
6:01 pm
Thu December 26, 2013

West Coast's Early Warning System For Quakes Still Spotty

Workers in Oakland, Calif., check the damage to Interstate 880 on Oct. 19, 1989; this portion of the freeway had collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake two days earlier.
Paul Sakuma AP

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 8:09 pm

Earthquake scientists on the West Coast would like to build a system that would give people a bit of warning before they get jolted with strong shaking from a distant quake.

Seismic waves take time to travel from the epicenter, which means such a warning system could issue alerts ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. A prototype has been developed for the region, seismologists say, but the complete network still lacks funding, and has big gaps outside cities.

Meanwhile, Japan already has something like that up and running.

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Energy
3:24 am
Mon December 23, 2013

Could Big Batteries Be Big Business In California?

Strong gusts in Palm Springs, Calif., generate plenty of energy, thanks to turbine farms. But being able to store all of that energy is just as important.
Kevork Djansezian Getty Images

Originally published on Mon December 23, 2013 11:12 am

The California Public Utilities Commission has called on utilities and private companies to install about $5 billion worth of batteries and other forms of energy storage to help the state power grid cope with the erratic power supplied by wind and solar energy.

The need to store energy has become urgent because the state is planning to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade. And the shift in strategy could open up some big opportunities for small startups, including one called Stem.

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Energy
3:04 am
Tue December 17, 2013

Environmentalists Split Over Need For Nuclear Power

Southern California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shown here in April 2012, was closed after small radiation leaks.
Lenny Ignelzi AP

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 12:30 am

California is regarded as the leading state when it comes to addressing climate change. But in 2012, according to analysts at Rhodium Group, California's carbon emissions actually increased more than 10 percent, bucking the national trend of decreases. That's in large part because California shut down one of its few remaining nuclear power plants.

That rise in carbon emissions underscores the huge impact nuclear power can have in efforts to combat climate change.

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Energy
5:17 pm
Wed December 11, 2013

Big Batteries Needed To Make Fickle Wind And Solar Power Work

PG&E, a Northern California utility company, is already experimenting with big batteries to store wind-generated electricity at its Vaca-Dixon Substation.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 8:57 am

Giant batteries are coming to a power grid near you. In fact, they're already starting to appear on the grid in California.

That's because California is planning to rely increasingly on power supplies that aren't necessarily available every minute of every day. The state plans to get one-third of its electricity from wind and solar energy by 2020.

Utilities in the state are trying to figure out how they can cope with that uncertain power supply. Batteries aren't a panacea, but they could help.

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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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Environment
2:51 am
Tue November 26, 2013

What's In It For U.S. To Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The chimneys of the Kolaghat Thermal Power Station loom above a field flooded for rice farming near Mecheda, West Bengal, India, in July 2011.
Dibyangshu Sarkar AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue November 26, 2013 1:28 pm

The United Nations negotiations in Warsaw over a climate treaty are moving at glacial speed — and that's in part because there's a fundamental problem.

In the coming decades, carbon dioxide emissions from China, India and other rapidly developing countries are expected to grow quickly. Residents there aspire to lifestyles Americans and Europeans enjoy today, and those nations aren't willing to slash emissions, because doing so could slow their economic growth.

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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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U.S. Commutes: The Way We Get To Work
4:02 am
Thu October 31, 2013

For A New Kind Of Commute, Some Eye The Sky

Orangutans can get exercise and look down their noses at zoo visitors, thanks to cables that stretch from one side of the primate habitat to the other.
Karen Bleier AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu October 31, 2013 2:21 pm

This story is part of a series on commuting in America.

Orangutans Kiko, Iris and Batang have a short commute — only about 500 feet between the buildings at the National Zoo where they sleep and pass their days. But it's a tricky trip.

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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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Environment
9:08 am
Sun September 15, 2013

Remote Antarctic Trek Reveals A Glacier Melting From Below

The surface tower at a drill site, under construction during blistering Antarctic winds. Data from instruments, deployed through 450 meters of ice, is transmitted from the tower by satellite back to the Naval Postgraduate School.
Image courtesy of Tim Stanton

Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 8:50 am

Scientists watching Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier from space have noticed with some alarm that it has been surging toward the sea.

If it were to melt entirely, global sea levels would rise by several feet.

The glacier is really, really remote. It's 1,800 miles from McMurdo, the U.S. base station in Antarctica, so just getting there is a challenge. Scientists have rarely been able to get out to the glacier to make direct measurements.

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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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Science
5:11 pm
Thu August 29, 2013

Another 'Grand Canyon' Discovered Beneath Greenland's Ice

A little chilly for camping: Ice-penetrating radar revealed a mega-canyon below the Greenland ice sheet, extending for more than 460 miles.
Courtesy of J. Bamber/University of Bristol

Originally published on Sat August 31, 2013 12:37 am

A major feature of the Earth has escaped notice — until now.

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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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