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.

The mysterious Clovis culture, which appeared in North America about 13,000 years ago, appears to be the forerunner of Native Americans throughout the Americas, according to a study in Nature. Scientists have read the genetic sequence of a baby from a Clovis burial site in Montana to help fill out the story of the earliest Americans.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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