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 Star in DC.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, DC, 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.

Harris' book Rigor Mortis was published in 2017. The book covers the biomedicine "reproducibility crisis" — many studies can't be reproduced in other labs, often due to lack of rigor, hence the book's title. Rigor Mortis was a finalist for the 2018 National Academy of Sciences/Keck Communication Award.

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.

Arctic sea ice is in sharp decline this year: Last week, scientists announced that it hit the lowest point ever measured, shattering the previous record.

But it turns out that's not the most dramatic change in the Arctic. A study by Canadian researchers finds that springtime snow is melting away even faster than Arctic ice. That also has profound implications for the Earth's climate.

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The current poster child for global warming is a polar bear, sitting on a melting iceberg. Some health officials argue the symbol should, instead, be a child.

That's because emerging science shows that people respond more favorably to warnings about climate change when it's portrayed as a health issue rather than as an environmental problem.

Ten years ago, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island disintegrated and melted in the waters off Antarctica. Two other massive ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula had suffered similar fates a few years before. The events became poster children for the effects of global warming. But a new study finds that the story isn't quite so simple.

There's no question that unusually warm air triggered the final demise of these huge chunks of ice. But a lingering question is whether these events can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

It may take some time to pinpoint the exact cause of India's massive blackouts last week, but the underlying issue for India and many other parts of the developing world is that supply is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for power — an imbalance that can affect the reliability of electric grids.

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Coral reefs may be able to recover from disaster, according to a study that provides a bit of reassurance about the future of these endangered ecosystems.

Coral reefs around the world are at risk as the ocean's temperature continues to rise. Those trends could kill not only coral but also the fish and other species that depend on the reefs. Those reefs are important for people as well.

'Shocking' Reef History

Scientists have discovered a new subatomic particle with profound implications for understanding our universe. On Wednesday, they announced they've found a particle believed to be the long-awaited Higgs boson. Nicknamed the "God particle," it represents the final piece in a theory that explains the basic nature of our universe.

Before we get to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, we might see some pyrotechnics from a giant physics experiment near Geneva, Switzerland.

Scientists there are planning to gather that morning to hear the latest about the decades-long search for a subatomic particle that could help explain why objects in our universe actually weigh anything.

The buzz is that they're closing in on the elusive Higgs particle. That would be a major milestone in the quest to understand the most basic nature of the universe.

The federal government could soon give the final go-ahead for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell has spent $4 billion since 2007 to prepare for this work, and is hoping to tap into vast new deposits of oil.

But the plan to drill exploratory wells is controversial — opposed by environmental groups and some indigenous people as well.

Diplomats and activists from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week to talk about how the planet's growing population can live better lives without damaging the environment. The Rio+20 meeting marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, a watershed meeting to address topics as diverse as climate change and biodiversity.

At this follow-up meeting, delegates hope to highlight an issue that was almost absent from the Earth Summit: making energy available to everyone in the world.

Imagine how tough life would be if raindrops weighed 3 tons apiece as they fell out of the sky at 20 mph. That's how raindrops look to a mosquito, yet a raindrop weighing 50 times more than one can hit the insect and the mosquito will survive.

How?

Put yourself in a mosquito's shoes — or rain boots — for a moment and step outside into a downpour of seemingly gigantic raindrops.

What snarky headline writer could resist a story about "hot tuna?" Or how about "tuna meltdown?"

Really, it seems just plain daffy to ignore a new study that says some Pacific bluefin tuna picked up traces of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year and brought it across the Pacific Ocean.

Back when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, some hardy bacteria took up residence at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Eighty six million years later, they're still there. And a new study says they're living out the most Spartan lifestyle known on this planet.

They're calling it a "rogue earthquake."

On April 11 of this year, one of the 10 biggest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia. It was felt from Bangladesh to Australia.

You may not have even heard of this magnitude 8.6 quake. It barely made the news in the U.S. because it did very little damage. Two people died, but there was no massive tsunami.

A new study has some reassuring news about how fast Greenland's glaciers are melting away.

Greenland's glaciers hold enough water to raise sea level by 20 feet, and they are melting as the planet warms, so there's a lot at stake.

A few years ago, the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland really caught people's attention. In short order, this slow-moving stream of ice suddenly doubled its speed. It started dumping a whole lot more ice into the Atlantic. Other glaciers also sped up.

Energy ministers from around the world met in London this week and got a scolding. The International Energy Agency warned the ministers that they are falling way behind in their efforts to wean the world from dirty sources of energy. Nations are nowhere near being on track to avert significant climate change in the coming decades.

It turns out that right now, just about everything is conspiring to make it harder to clean up the world's energy supply.

The Himalayas are sometimes called the world's "third pole" because they are covered with thousands of glaciers. Water from those glaciers helps feed some of the world's most important rivers, including the Ganges and the Indus. And as those glaciers melt, they will contribute to rising sea levels.

So a lot is at stake in understanding these glaciers and how they will respond in a warming world. Researchers writing in the latest issue of Science magazine make it clear they are still struggling at that task.

Filmmaker James Cameron recently reminded us of the wonders of the sea by diving solo in a submarine to the deepest spot in the ocean. Next year, if all goes as planned, a rather different expedition will take place 1,000 miles south of that dive: An Australian company will start mining for copper, gold, silver and zinc on the seafloor off the shore of Papua New Guinea.

Shell Oil plans to explore for petroleum off Alaska's north coast this summer. The native people of Alaska have a big stake in both oil revenue and environmental protection. That conflict has played out in recent trips by Inupiats to Washington, D.C., to argue their case.

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, lasted for many terrifying minutes. But the multiple nuclear meltdowns that followed created an emergency that lasted for weeks and a legacy that will last for decades.

Here's how the event unfolded. The tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. As a result, the cooling systems failed and three reactors melted down. Steam laced with radioactive material poured into the air. Water contaminated with radiation also flowed into the sea.

One year ago this Sunday, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Japan triggered a tsunami that killed 20,000 people. It also triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.

But health effects from radiation turn out to be minor compared with the other issues the people of Fukushima prefecture now face.

The wind power industry in this country has grown fast in recent years, but that could come to a screeching halt.

The industry depends on a federal subsidy to keep it competitive with other forms of electricity. It's a tax credit wind farms get for the power they produce. That credit expires at the end of the year, and it's not clear whether Congress will renew it.

The tax credit was initially created to encourage wind energy, since it is a clean and secure source of electricity. But these days the argument is all about jobs.

The Earth's continents are in constant motion. On at least three occasions, they have all collided to form one giant continent. If history is a guide, the current continents will coalesce once again to form another supercontinent. And a study in Nature now shows how that could come about.

You can think of continents as giant puzzle pieces shuffling around the Earth. When they drift apart, mighty oceans form. When they come together, oceans disappear. And it's all because continents sit on moving plates of the Earth's crust.

A new round of United Nations climate talks is getting under way in Durban, South Africa, Monday. And domestic struggles here in the United States are hampering the global talks.

The United States is second only to China in emitting gases that cause global warming. Despite a presidential pledge to reduce emissions two years ago, we're spewing more carbon dioxide than ever into the atmosphere.

That's putting a crimp on the 20-year-long struggle to develop a meaningful climate treaty.

Cleaning up the air, while good for our lungs, could make global warming worse. That conclusion is underscored by a new study, which looks at the pollutants that go up smokestacks along with carbon dioxide.

These pollutants are called aerosols and they include soot as well as compounds of nitrogen and sulfur and other stuff into the air. Natalie Mahowald, a climate researcher at Cornell University, says so far, scientists have mostly tried to understand what those aerosols do while they're actually in the air.

The world would be a very different place if we could bottle up a bit of the sun here on Earth and tap that abundant and clean energy supply. Governments have spent many billions of dollars to develop that energy source, fusion energy, but it's still a distant dream. Now a few upstart companies are trying to do it on the cheap. And the ideas are credible enough to attract serious private investment.

This is the second of two reports on plans to export U.S. coal to China.

Coal producers in Wyoming and Montana are hoping new export terminals will be built in Washington state so they can ramp up their sales to China. Activists are trying to stop those ports, in part because they're concerned about global warming. But a thriving export market could also drive up the price of coal here in the United States, and that has climate implications as well.

This is the first of two reports on plans to export U.S. coal to China.

Plans are afoot to build giant new coal terminals on the West Coast to ship this lucrative commodity to China. But activists want to stop this, in part because coal produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide when it's burned. Federal climate policy is silent on this potentially large source of emissions, so the debate is happening at the local level.

Although dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, there are still thought to be a few species left over from those days. Plants called cycads are among these rare "living fossils" — they have remained pretty much unchanged for more than 300 million years, but a study in Science magazine suggests that glamorous title may not be deserved.

There's no time machine in Washington, D.C., but Harvard botanist Sarah Mathews leads me to what's arguably the next best thing — a room made of glass in the U.S. Botanic Garden, just downhill from the U.S. Capitol.

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