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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2:01am

Thu May 30, 2013
Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities

Breathing Easier: How Houston Is Working To Clean Up Its Air

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 11:18 am

The Houston Ship Channel is home to a wide range of heavy industry, including chemical processing plants and petrochemical refineries.
Richard Harris NPR

The Houston area produces about a quarter of the nation's gasoline, and about a third of the plastics that are in our cars, cupboards and just about everywhere else. So it is no surprise that this heavily industrial area has a problem with air pollution. But in the past decade, Houston's air has improved dramatically.

How that happened is a tale of good science, new technology and a Texas law that prompted companies along the Houston Ship Channel to disclose their emissions.

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4:18am

Sat May 18, 2013
Environment

Not Your Grandpa's RV: This Roving Lab Tracks Air Pollution

Originally published on Sat May 18, 2013 12:45 pm

Ira Leifer, next to an RV he has outfitted with methane sensors and other equipment to sniff the air.
Richard Harris NPR

If you're driving down the road someday and you come across a camper with a 50-foot periscope sticking up into the sky, you just might have crossed paths with Ira Leifer. His quirky vehicle is on a serious mission. It's sniffing the air for methane, a gas that contributes to global warming.

Leifer is an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But you'll more often find him off campus, in a garage, next to a string of auto body shops near the airport.

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12:06pm

Wed May 15, 2013
The Salt

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

Originally published on Wed May 15, 2013 6:39 pm

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

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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12:11pm

Fri May 10, 2013
Environment

'Dangerous Territory': Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Iconic High

Originally published on Fri May 10, 2013 6:26 pm

Carbon dioxide readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii have reached what atmospheric scientist Ralph Keeling calls a "psychological threshold" of 400 parts per million. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been steadily increasing since near-constant measurements began at the observatory in 1958.
Jonathan Kingston National Geographic/Getty Images

Earth's atmosphere is entering a new era. A mountaintop research station that has been tracking carbon dioxide for more than 50 years says the level of that gas in our air has reached a milestone: 400 parts per million.

That number is one of the clearest measures of how human beings are changing the planet. It shows how much carbon we have put into the air from burning fossil fuels — and that carbon dioxide drives global warming.

This measurement comes from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, a remote volcano where the air is largely free of local influences.

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4:09pm

Tue April 23, 2013
Energy

Could An 'Artificial Leaf' Fuel Your Car?

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 7:04 pm

Miguel Modestino, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, is part of the team working to create a solar fuels generator at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.
Roy Kaltschmidt Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

It's easy to feel dispirited about climate change because the challenge of dealing with it seems so overwhelming. But Miguel Modestino is actually excited about the challenge. He's part of a large team hoping to make an artificial leaf — a device that would make motor fuel from sunlight and carbon dioxide rather than from fossil fuels.

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7:45am

Mon April 22, 2013
Environment

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

Originally published on Mon April 22, 2013 8:52 pm

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

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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5:17am

Sat March 23, 2013
The Two-Way

Coal And Coral: Australia's Self-Destructive Paradox

The city of Gladstone near the Great Barrier Reef is the world's fourth largest coal-export hub. Dredges, like one seen here, have turned the harbor brown as they work to expand the coal port.
Richard Harris NPR

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 5: A return to shore finds that people prefer cars to corals.

It's not every day you open an in-flight magazine and read an ad touting "spitwater pressure cleaners for the mining industry." Flip the page and you'll also see an ad cajoling you to "snorkel, sip, snooze" on the Great Barrier Reef.

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9:51am

Fri March 22, 2013
The Two-Way

Scientists Use Antacid To Help Measure The Rate Of Reef Growth

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 9:58 am

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science takes a water sample during his experiment out 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

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 4: Richard catches up with one of the gurus of climate science out on the reef.

Ken Caldeira loves a challenge, and he has a big one right under his feet. He's standing on an expanse of coral reef out in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It's being washed with water as the tide streams over the reef, from a lagoon to the open sea.

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9:35am

Thu March 21, 2013
The Two-Way

It's 'Birds Gone Wild' Out On Australia's Heron Island

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 10:01 am

On Australia's Heron Island, buff-banded rails like this one have become the avian equivalent of a weed.
Richard Harris NPR

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 3: Waiting for a boat to the next island, Richard meets some rowdy birds.

Weeds are not a true category of plant. A weed is simply a plant that's growing where a person wishes it weren't.

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9:49am

Wed March 20, 2013
The Two-Way

On Australia's Great Barrier Reef, There's A Turf Battle Raging

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 10:02 am

Guillermo Diaz-Pulido from Griffith University in Brisbane grows bits of seaweed attached to pieces of coral in tanks at the research facility on Australia's Heron Island.
Richard Harris NPR

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 2: The good news is life could get better for seaweed.

Picture a coral reef and the first things likely to come to mind are brilliantly colored fish swimming among stout branches of coral. Let your mind wander a bit more and you might imagine some sea turtles, stingrays and sharks.

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9:00am

Tue March 19, 2013
The Two-Way

Australia's Heron Island: A Canary In The Coal Mine For Coral Reefs?

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 10:02 am

Heron Island is located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, about 25 miles off the northeast coast of Australia.
Ted Mead Getty Images

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 1: Richard gets a hefty dose of bad news.

I've seen the future, and it isn't pretty.

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4:01pm

Mon February 25, 2013
Health

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

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 6:23 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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2:34pm

Thu February 14, 2013
Shots - Health News

Traces Of Anxiety Drugs May Make Fish Act Funny

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 4:40 pm

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

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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3:09pm

Tue February 12, 2013
Asia

Did North Korea Test A 'Miniature' Nuclear Bomb?

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 12:19 pm

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

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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4:11pm

Wed January 16, 2013
Environment

Could Some Midwest Land Support New Biofuel Refineries?

Originally published on Fri January 18, 2013 6:16 am

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

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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