Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris reports on science issues for NPR's newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Harris, who joined NPR in 1986, has traveled to the ends of the earth 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 and the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis).

In 2010, Harris’ reporting uncovered that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. He covered the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, followed by 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 of the journalism and science industries’ most prestigious awards. The University of California at Santa Cruz awarded Harris the 2010-11 Alumni Achievement Award – the school’s highest honor. 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.

As part of the team that collaborated on NPR's 1989 series “AIDS in Black America,” Harris was awarded a Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, a first place award from the National Association of Black Journalists and an Ohio State Award. In 1988, Harris won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award for his report, “Anti-Noise: Can Technology Turn Noise into Quiet?” which explored a revolutionary technology that uses computer-generated noise to cancel out, not just mask, unwanted noise.

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. Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harris spent the summer of 1980 as a Mass Media Science Fellow reporting on science issues for The Washington Star, in Washington, D.C.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, as well as past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

A California native, Harris was valedictorian of his college graduating class at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology, with highest honors.



Mon December 23, 2013

Could Big Batteries Be Big Business In California?

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

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

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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Tue December 17, 2013

Environmentalists Split Over Need For Nuclear Power

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

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

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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Wed December 11, 2013

Big Batteries Needed To Make Fickle Wind And Solar Power Work

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

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

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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Tue December 3, 2013

Ready — Or Not. Abrupt Climate Changes Worry Scientists Most

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

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

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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Mon December 2, 2013

Slashing Fossil Fuel Consumption Comes With A Price

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

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

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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Sat November 30, 2013

Tech Leaders, Economists Split Over Clean Energy's Prospects

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

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

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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Thu November 28, 2013

By Accident, Scientists Discover Lakes Beneath Greenland

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



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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Tue November 26, 2013

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

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

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

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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Wed November 20, 2013

At Climate Meeting, Tensions Rise Between Rich And Poor Nations

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



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.


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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Mon November 11, 2013

Why Typhoon Haiyan Caused So Much Damage

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

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

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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Tue September 24, 2013
NPR Story

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.


Tue September 24, 2013

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

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

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

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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Mon September 16, 2013

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

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

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

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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Sun September 15, 2013

Remote Antarctic Trek Reveals A Glacier Melting From Below

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

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

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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Thu September 12, 2013

See Ya, Voyager: Probe Has Finally Entered Interstellar Space

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

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'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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Tue September 3, 2013

Pollution, Not Rising Temperatures, May Have Melted Alpine Glaciers

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

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

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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Thu August 29, 2013

Another 'Grand Canyon' Discovered Beneath Greenland's Ice

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

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

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

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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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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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Thu August 22, 2013

'Uncertain' Science: Judith Curry's Take On Climate Change

Originally published on Fri August 23, 2013 5:10 pm

Judith Curry with her dogs, Rosie (left) and Bruno, in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. The climatologist focuses on the uncertainties of climate change far more than on the consensus of climate scientists.
Richard Harris NPR

While the Obama administration presses forward with plans to deal with climate change, Congress remains steadfast against taking action. It's not easy to find a scientist who will agree with that point of view. But Republicans have found an ally in a climate scientist by the name of Judith Curry.

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Tue August 20, 2013

How Extreme Australian Rains Made Global Sea Levels Drop

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

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

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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Thu August 8, 2013

Swinging CO2 Levels Show The Earth Is 'Breathing' More Deeply

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 9:34 pm

Plants accumulate carbon in the spring and summer, and they release it back into the atmosphere in the fall in winter. And a change in the landscape of the Arctic tundra, seen here, means that shrubs hold onto snow better, which keeps the organic-rich soils warmer and more likely to release carbon dioxide that's stored there.
Jean-Erick Pasquier Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Plant life on our planet soaks up a fair amount of the carbon dioxide that pours out of our tailpipes and smokestacks. Plants take it up during the summer and return some of it to the air in the winter. And a new study shows that those "breaths" have gotten deeper over the past 50 years.

This isn't just a curiosity. Plant life is helping to reduce the speed at which carbon dioxide is building up in our atmosphere. That's slowing the global warming, at least marginally, so scientists are eager to understand how this process works. The new study provides some clues.

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Fri August 2, 2013

Our Once And Future Oceans: Taking Lessons From Earth's Past

Originally published on Wed September 4, 2013 12:48 pm

Changes to the acidity of the Earth's ancient oceans affected the coral reefs more than 50 million years ago. And researchers are using that information to try to predict how the planet might fare in our rapidly changing climate. Above, the Wheeler Reef section of the Great Barrier Reef.
Auscape UIG via Getty Images

One of the most powerful ways to figure out how the Earth will respond to all the carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere is to look back into the planet's history.

Paleontologists have spent a lot of time trying to understand a time, more than 50 million years ago, when the planet was much hotter than it is today. They're finding that the news isn't all bad when you take the long view.

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Wed July 31, 2013

Canadian Regulators Investigate Mysterious Tar Sands Spills

Roughnecks build a drilling rig at the MEG Energy site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. In addition to large, open-pit mining operations, tar sands oil can be extracted from the ground by pumping down high-pressure steam.
Michael S. Williamson The Washington Post/Getty Images

Government regulators in Canada are investigating a series of mysterious oil spills around tar sands operations in Alberta. Thick oil is gurgling up unexpectedly from the ground instead of flowing through the wells that were built to collect it.

The spills are raising questions about a technology that's rapidly expanding to extract fossil fuels that could ultimately end up in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

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Tue July 30, 2013
Research News

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

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

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

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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Wed July 24, 2013

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

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

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

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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Tue July 16, 2013

Eavesdropping On Nature Gives Clues To Biodiversity

Originally published on Tue July 16, 2013 10:00 pm

Scientists could use recordings of wildlife to monitor the movements of invasive species like the European starling.
Liz Leyden

Biology professor Mitch Aide uses his ears to learn about the frogs, birds and insects that are all around him. This scientist at the University of Puerto Rico is trying to track how animal populations are affected by a world that's under increasing pressure from human activities.

Aide says, "We would like to have five, 10, 20 years of data of how populations are changing."

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Fri July 12, 2013

Sweeping Parts Of Southern Seas Could Become A Nature Preserve

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 8:37 pm

The "Giant Tabular Iceberg" floats in Antarctica's Ross Sea in December 2011. Under a proposed new international agreement, large sections of the oceans around Antarctica would become protected as a marine preserve.
Camille Seaman Barcroft Media/Landov

The area of ocean set aside as a nature preserve could double or triple in the coming days, depending on the outcome of a meeting in Germany. Representatives from 24 countries and the European Union are considering setting aside large portions of ocean around Antarctica as a protected area. And the deal may hinge on preserving some fishing rights.

There are two proposals on the table: One would set aside huge parts of the Southern Ocean around East Antarctica; the other would focus on the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand.

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Fri June 28, 2013

Put Down Oil Drill, Pick Up The Test Tube: Making Fuel From Yeast

Originally published on Fri June 28, 2013 10:41 pm

Jay Keasling (left), speaking with Rajit Sapar at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, is pioneering a technique to develop diesel fuel from yeast.
Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

What if we could get our gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel from yeast instead of from oil wells? That's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it's already happening on a small scale. And there's a vigorous research effort to ramp this up on a massive scale.

One of the more innovative approaches uses a new technology called "synthetic biology." Jay Keasling is one of the leaders in this hot field.

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Thu June 27, 2013

This Climate Fix Might Be Decades Ahead Of Its Time

Originally published on Thu June 27, 2013 3:35 pm

Global Thermostat's pilot plant in Menlo Park, Calif., pulls carbon dioxide from the surrounding air. The next challenge is to find uses for the captured gas.
Courtesy of Global Thermostat

Every year, people add 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air, mostly by burning fossil fuels. That's contributing to climate change. A few scientists have been dreaming about ways to pull some of that CO2 out of the air, but face stiff skepticism and major hurdles. This is the story of one scientist who's pressing ahead.

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