Christopher Joyce

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Joyce seeks out stories in some of the world's most inaccessible places. He has reported from remote villages in the Amazon and Central American rainforests, Tibetan outposts in the mountains of western China, and the bottom of an abandoned copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Over the course of his career, Joyce has written stories about volcanoes, hurricanes, human evolution, tagging giant blue-fin tuna, climate change, wars in Kosovo and Iraq and the artificial insemination of an African elephant.

For several years, Joyce was an editor and correspondent for NPR's Radio Expeditions, a documentary program on natural history and disappearing cultures produced in collaboration with the National Geographic Society that was heard frequently on Morning Edition.

Joyce came to NPR in 1993 as a part-time editor while finishing a book about tropical rainforests and, as he says, "I just fell in love with radio." For two years, Joyce worked on NPR's national desk and was responsible for NPR's Western coverage. But his interest in science and technology soon launched him into parallel work on NPR's science desk.

In addition, Joyce has written two non-fiction books on scientific topics for the popular market: Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell (with co-author Eric Stover); and Earthly Goods: Medicine-Hunting in the Rainforest.

Before coming to NPR, Joyce worked for ten years as the U.S. correspondent and editor for the British weekly magazine New Scientist.

Joyce's stories on forensic investigations into the massacres in Kosovo and Bosnia were part of NPR's war coverage that won a 1999 Overseas Press Club award. He was part of the Radio Expeditions reporting and editing team that won the 2001 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University journalism award and the 2001 Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Joyce won the 2001 American Association for the Advancement of Science excellence in journalism award.

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Environment
5:03 am
Sun February 10, 2013

Is The Earth Cooking Up A Super Volcano?

Plosky Tolbachnik volcano erupts in Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula on Jan. 6, 2013. It's not a so-called "super volcano," but every million years or so scientists say the Earth burps up volcanoes that can erupt for thousands of years.
Alexander Petrov AP

Originally published on Sun February 10, 2013 8:38 am

Every few million years or so, the Earth burps up a gargantuan volcano.

These aren't like volcanoes in our lifetimes; these "super volcanoes" can erupt continuously for thousands of years. While they might be rare, you'd best look out when one hits.

The ash and volcanic gases from these volcanoes can wipe out most living things over large parts of the planet. Michael Thorne, a seismologist at the University of Utah, has some clues about what causes these big eruptions.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
5:41 pm
Tue January 29, 2013

Sand After Sandy: Scientists Map Sea Floor For Sediment

Highly detailed sonar systems aboard the research vessel Pritchard gave researchers a clear view of the sediment on the seafloor off Long Island.
Courtesy of John Goff University Of Texas

Originally published on Mon February 4, 2013 2:29 pm

Congress has now agreed to give some $60 billion to states damaged by Hurricane Sandy. A lot will go to Long Island, one of the hardest hit areas. Besides damages to homes and businesses, its system of protective barrier islands and beaches were partially washed away.

Scientists are trying to find out where that sand and sediment went, and whether it can be used to rebuild Long Island's defenses.

In January. On a boat in Long Island Bay.

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Science
5:24 pm
Fri January 18, 2013

Powerful But Fragile: The Challenge Of Lithium Batteries

A United Airlines 787 Dreamliner arrives at O'Hare international Airport in Chicago in November. Aviation authorities in the U.S. and abroad have grounded the planes because of problems with batteries on board.
Nam Y. Huh AP

Originally published on Fri January 18, 2013 7:58 pm

Boeing announced late Friday that it is postponing deliveries of its new 787 Dreamliner because of problems with its big batteries. Aviation authorities in the U.S. and abroad grounded the new jetliners after those batteries failed in two planes operated by Japanese airlines, including one battery that burned while the plane was on the ground.

These lithium-ion batteries are new to jetliners. They're powerful and lightweight, and, unfortunately, they're also fragile.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
3:34 am
Fri January 18, 2013

Experts Urge Caution As $50 Billion In Sandy Aid Passes House

Much of the money from the Hurricane Sandy relief bill the House of Representatives passed will fund beach and infrastructure restoration projects in areas such as Mantoloking, N.J., seen on Oct. 31.
Doug Mills AP

Originally published on Fri January 18, 2013 9:11 am

The House of Representatives passed a bill this week to spend $50 billion to help states struck by Hurricane Sandy. The action comes more than two months after the storm, and the measure now goes to the Senate.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
3:22 am
Thu December 13, 2012

New York Planners Prep For A 'New Normal' Of Powerful Storms

A woman with the Army Corps of Engineers documents a destroyed home last month in a residential area of New Dorp Beach on Staten Island in New York City.
Robert Nickelsberg Getty Images

Originally published on Thu December 13, 2012 9:03 am

It will take tens of billions of dollars to repair the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy. But scientists who study climate change say repair is not enough. As the climate warms, ice sheets and glaciers will melt, raising the sea level. That means coastal storms will more likely cause flooding.

So New Yorkers, local politicians and scientists face a tough decision: How to spend limited funds to defend themselves from what climate experts call "the new normal."

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Environment
4:47 pm
Wed December 5, 2012

In Arid West, Cheatgrass Turns Fires Into Infernos

The Constantina Fire burning in Long Valley, Calif., in 2010, very likely started in cheatgrass.
Courtesy of Nolan Preece

Originally published on Wed December 5, 2012 6:36 pm

Cheatgrass is about as Western as cowboy boots and sagebrush. It grows in yellowish clumps, about knee high to a horse, and likes arid land.

One thing cheatgrass does is burn — in fact, more easily than anyone realized. That's the conclusion from a new study that says cheatgrass is making Western wildfires worse.

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Environment
3:18 am
Fri November 23, 2012

An Arbor Embolism? Why Trees Die In Drought

A forest near Trieste, Italy, is largely dead owing to drought stress during the summer of 2012.
Andrea Nardini Nature

Originally published on Fri November 23, 2012 1:53 pm

Scientists who study forests say they've discovered something disturbing about the way prolonged drought affects trees.

It has to do with the way trees drink. They don't do it the way we do — they suck water up from the ground all the way to their leaves, through a bundle of channels in a part of the trunk called the xylem. The bundles are like blood vessels.

When drought dries out the soil, a tree has to suck harder. And that can actually be dangerous, because sucking harder increases the risk of drawing air bubbles into the tree's plumbing.

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Environment
3:18 am
Wed November 14, 2012

A 'Green' Gold Rush? Calif. Firm Turns Trash To Gas

Energy Of The Future? California company Sierra Energy is testing out a reactor that turns garbage — like these wood chips, metal fragments and plastics — into synthetic gas that can then be turned into a low-carbon diesel fuel.
Christopher Joyce NPR

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 8:17 pm

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1

California starts the ball rolling Wednesday on a controversial scheme to keep the planet from overheating. Businesses will have to get a permit if they emit greenhouse gases.

Some permits will be auctioned today; the rest are free. The big idea here is the state is putting a ceiling on emissions.

It's a gamble. And for this top-down climate plan to work, it has to usher in a greener, more efficient economy.

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Environment
5:30 pm
Tue November 13, 2012

Calif. To Begin Rationing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

California begins a new plan to ration greenhouse gas emissions from large companies on Wednesday. Big companies must limit the greenhouse gases they emit and get permits for those emissions. Above, the Department of Water and Power San Fernando Valley Generating Station, in Sun Valley, Calif., in 2008.
David McNew Getty Images

Originally published on Tue November 13, 2012 6:18 pm

California begins a controversial experiment to curb climate change on Wednesday: The state will start rationing the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit.

It's the most ambitious effort to control climate change in the country. Some say the plan will cost dearly; supporters say it's the route to a cleaner economy.

Here's how the climate deal works. Big companies must limit the greenhouse gases they emit — from smokestacks to tailpipes — and they have to get permits for those emissions. The clock starts Jan. 1.

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Energy
5:04 am
Fri November 2, 2012

Fixing NYC's Underground Power Grid Is No Easy Task

Consolidated Edison workers try to repair damage near the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Originally published on Fri November 2, 2012 11:43 am

The fury of the great storm Sandy shocked a lot of people, like John Miksad, vice president of the New York electric utility Consolidated Edison. "We hit 14-foot tides — that was the biggest surprise," he told a press conference this week. "The water just kept rising and rising and rising."

That rising water flooded streets, buildings and parts of the city's underground electricity grid. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lost power. But it might have been worse if the power lines had not been underground.

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Animals
4:19 am
Fri October 26, 2012

Hey, Sexy Dino, Show Me Your Feathers

This artistic interpretation shows an adult and juvenile feathered ornithomimid dinosaurs.
Julius Csotonyi Science

Originally published on Fri October 26, 2012 8:43 pm

Some of the weirdest animal behavior is about romance. That's especially true with birds — they croon or dance or display brilliant feathers to seduce the reluctant.

This sort of sexual display apparently has a long pedigree: There's now new evidence that some dinosaurs may have used the same come-on.

The source is a kind of dinosaur that was built like a 400-pound ostrich. It lived about 75 million years ago and is called ornithomimus, meaning "bird mimic."

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The Salt
10:36 am
Wed October 24, 2012

When Fire Met Meat, The Brains Of Early Humans Grew Bigger

Actors Stan Laurel and Edna Marlon play at socializing around the campfire. It turns out that early man's brain developed in part thanks to cooking.
Hulton Archive Getty

Originally published on Wed October 24, 2012 1:08 pm

If you're reading this blog, you're probably into food. Perhaps you're even one of those people whose world revolves around your Viking stove and who believes that cooking defines us as civilized creatures.

Well, on the latter part, you'd be right. At least according to some neuroscientists from Brazil.

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Animals
1:53 pm
Tue October 23, 2012

Baby Beluga, Swim So Wild And Sing For Me

This image, from an archival video, shows the white whale NOC swimming around and under researchers' boats.
Current Biology

Originally published on Wed October 24, 2012 4:18 am

Whales are among the great communicators of the animal world. They produce all sorts of sounds: squeaks, whistles and even epic arias worthy of an opera house.

And one whale in particular has apparently done something that's never been documented before: He imitated human speech.

The beluga, or white whale, is smallish as whales go and very cute, if you're into marine mammals. Belugas are called the "canaries of the sea" because they're very vocal.

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Environment
5:04 am
Thu October 18, 2012

Scientists Solve Mystery Of Disappearing Salt Marshes

Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 12:11 pm

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's pay a visit now to one of the crucial parts of our country's ecosystem. Along U.S. coastlines, there are salt marshes that serve as nurseries for fish, crabs and other shellfish. They also protect coastal areas against flooding. Scientists warn that some salt marshes are disintegrating, and researchers have a pretty surprising theory about why that is. Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.

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Space
5:44 pm
Fri October 12, 2012

For Sale: A Chunk Of Mars

A fragment of the meteor that crashed into Tissint, Morocco.
Mark Mauthner Heritage Auctions

Originally published on Tue October 23, 2012 2:31 pm

Few things are as rare as a piece of rock that falls from outer space and crashes onto Earth.

Among the most prized of these meteorites are from Mars. Friday, scientists describe the latest one discovered: It's called Tissint, and this weekend you can buy a piece of it.

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Science
3:28 am
Thu October 11, 2012

Software Calculates City-Specific Carbon Footprint

Bedrich Benes and Michel Abdul-Massih

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 3:58 pm

One way to measure greenhouse gases is simply to capture them at the source: You put an instrument on a smokestack, for example. Cities, however, are full of cars, buses, factories and homes that all use fuel or electricity. No one really knows how much carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, comes from each.

Ecologist Kevin Gurney says he can find out.

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Science
5:13 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

Hungry Snakes Trap Guam In Spidery Web

Invasive brown tree snakes have gobbled up most of Guam's native forest birds. Without these avian predators to keep their numbers in check, the island's spider population has exploded.
Isaac Chellman Rice University

Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 8:09 pm

The Pacific Island of Guam is experiencing a population explosion — of spiders.

There are more spiders there now than anyone can remember. To get a sense of how weird the situation is, I started out in Maryland. On my front porch, overlooking the Severn River.

At 6:30 in the morning on a cool fall day, I find two spider webs in a matter of five minutes. But if I were on the island of Guam, I might find 70 or 80 spider webs in five minutes.

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Science
4:16 pm
Mon September 17, 2012

What Drove Early Man Across Globe? Climate Change

An artist's re-creation of the first human migration to North America from across the Bering Sea.
DEA Picture Library De Agostini/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon September 17, 2012 6:39 pm

Anthropologists believe early humans evolved in Africa and then moved out from there in successive waves. However, what drove their migrations has been a matter of conjecture.

One new explanation is climate change.

Anthropologist Anders Erikkson of Cambridge University in England says the first few hardy humans who left Africa might've gone earlier but couldn't. Northeastern Africa — the only route to Asia and beyond — was literally a no man's land.

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Science
3:31 am
Tue September 11, 2012

A Berry So Shiny, It's Irresistible (And Inedible)

The shiny blue berries of the tropical Pollia condensata plant rely on their looks, not nutritional content, to attract birds to spread their seeds.
Silvia Vignolini et al. via PNAS

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 9:57 am

That fake fruit in the wooden bowls that hotels love to decorate their lobbies with never looks quite right. No, apparently it takes nature to make a fake that looks even better than the real thing.

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Around the Nation
6:12 am
Thu August 30, 2012

New Orleans Imposes Dusk-To-Dawn Curfew

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just to keep us up to date here on Hurricane Isaac, it's become a tropical storm and forecasters expect to downgrade it to a tropical depression by this evening. That is small comfort, though, to people facing the storm's strong winds and heavy rains. States as far north as Ohio could feel Isaac's effects.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest
5:20 am
Sun August 26, 2012

'Torture Lab' Kills Trees To Learn How To Save Them

Powers walks along plastic gutters designed to keep rain away from tree roots to simulate drought. Scientists here are studying the effects of sustained drought conditions on the tree species of the Southwest.
David Gilkey NPR

Originally published on Sun August 26, 2012 6:03 pm

Last of a five-part series

The droughts that have parched big regions of the country are killing forests.

In the arid Southwest, the body count is especially high. Besides trying to keep wildfires from burning up these desiccated forests, there's not much anyone can do. In fact, scientists are only now figuring out how drought affects trees.

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Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest
2:54 pm
Fri August 24, 2012

Is It Too Late To Defuse The Danger Of Megafires?

Timmons and Springer work in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which were burned during last year's Wallow Fire. The largest fire in Arizona history, Wallow barreled through a half-million acres of forest.
David Gilkey NPR

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 7:47 pm

Fourth in a five-part series

Forests in the Southwest have become a fuel stockpile. A century of U.S. Forest Service policy of quashing all fires has allowed forests to become overgrown, and now a warming climate is making the problem worse.

Scientists are trying to defuse these green time bombs. Is it too late?

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Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest
3:18 am
Fri August 24, 2012

In Southwest, Worst-Case Fire Scenario Plays Out

Craig Allen, left, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Jorge Castro, a visiting professor of ecology from Spain, survey a plateau ravaged during last year's Las Conchas fire in New Mexico. The megafire burned over 150,000 acres of forest.
David Gilkey NPR

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 7:48 pm

Third of a five-part series

As the Earth's average temperature creeps upward, climate scientists have predicted record heat waves and droughts. That's what we've seen this summer in the U.S.

The question has become, are we now seeing the real damage climate change can do?

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Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest
2:51 pm
Thu August 23, 2012

Why Forest-Killing Megafires Are The New Normal

Jorge Castro, a visiting professor of ecology from Spain, sips water in the shade of a burnt tree in New Mexico's Bandelier Wilderness area, adjacent to the Bandelier National Monument. This site was devastated by last year's Las Conchas fire.
David Gilkey NPR

Originally published on Sun August 26, 2012 9:46 am

Second of a five-part series

Fire scientists are calling it "the new normal": a time of fires so big and hot that no one can remember anything like it.

One of the scientists who coined that term is Craig Allen. I drive with him to New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, where he works for the U.S. Geological Survey. We take a dirt road up into the Jemez Mountains, into a landscape of black poles as far as you can see.

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Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest
3:17 am
Thu August 23, 2012

How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires

Adams (left) talks with Swetnam in their laboratory, nestled under the football stadium.
David Gilkey NPR

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 7:50 pm

First of a five-part series

The history of fire in the American Southwest is buried in a catacomb of rooms under the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Arizona.

Here rules professor Thomas Swetnam, tree ring expert. You want to read a tree ring? You go to Tom. He's a big, burly guy with a beard and a true love for trees.

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Environment
3:19 am
Thu August 9, 2012

Building For Birds: Architects Aim For Safer Skies

Architect Guy Maxwell holds a printout of his proposed design for the new Bridge Building at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
John W. Poole NPR

Originally published on Thu August 9, 2012 1:07 pm

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1.

Modern architecture's love affair with tall glass buildings takes a toll. Every year, millions of birds crash into glass windows in North America.

These collisions may seem like an intractable problem. But in New York City, an architect is trying to find a solution.

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Environment
3:15 am
Wed August 8, 2012

A Clear And Present Danger: How Glass Kills Birds

Experts say glass buildings kill millions of birds every year. Scientists at Powdermill Avian Research Center are studying ways to help prevent this. Here, a volunteer tags a black hooded warbler in Rector, Pa., in May.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Tue December 4, 2012 12:05 pm

First of a two-part series. Read Part 2.

Modern architecture loves glass. Glass makes interiors brighter and adds sparkle to cityscapes. But glass also kills millions of birds every year when they collide with windows. Biologists say as more glass buildings go up, more birds are dying.

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Environment
5:07 pm
Mon August 6, 2012

Are Recent Heat Waves A Result Of Climate Change?

Cattle use a tree for shade as temperatures rose above 100 degrees in a pasture July 28, 2011, near Canadian, Texas.
Scott Olson Getty Images

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 6:51 pm

The last couple of years have certainly felt unusually hot in many parts of the U.S., but are they really all that unusual?

Many people wonder whether a warming climate is turning up the temperature or whether it's all just part of the normal variation in the weather. Among scientists, there's a growing view that these latest heat waves are indeed a result of climate change.

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Humans
3:20 am
Fri July 13, 2012

In Ancient Ore. Dump, Clues To The First Americans?

Displayed in the hand of University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins are three bases for western stemmed projectiles from the Paisley Caves in Oregon. The bases date to some 13,000 years ago.
Jim Barlow Science/AAAS

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 10:16 am

Some of the most interesting discoveries in archaeology come from sifting through ancient garbage dumps. Scientists working in Oregon have found one that has yielded what they say are the oldest human remains in the Americas and a puzzle about the earliest American tools.

Early Americans used Oregon's Paisley Caves for, among other things, a toilet. Little did they know that scientists would be picking through what they left behind.

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Environment
5:46 pm
Mon July 9, 2012

Rising Shale Water Complicates Fracking Debate

A water tank truck is seen on the main street in Waynesburg, Pa., on April 13. Scientists say naturally polluted water can rise to the surface of the Marcellus Shale; that finding suggests that frack water could seep out, too.
Mladen Antonov AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon July 9, 2012 6:47 pm

The nation's boom in natural gas production has come with a cost: The technique used to get much of the gas out of the ground, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated drinking water. But how often and where this contamination is taking place is a matter of much debate and litigation.

Now, a new study has found natural pathways of contamination — but that doesn't mean the drilling industry is off the hook.

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