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Stargazers say let darkness fall; battle light pollution

Friday, January 27, 2012
Daily Southtown
by Donna Vickroy

Imagine if the inspiration for Van Gogh’s Starry Night had been an urban sky. The famous Dutch artist would have needed a lot less yellow paint.

Stargazers are excited about a proposed Cook County ordinance that is aimed at darkening the night skies in and around Chicago.

“Kids today don’t even know what a starry sky looks like,” said Audrey Fischer, director of the Chicago Astronomical Society. She showed 400 children at last summer’s Taste of Chicago event photographs of starry night skies. Not one knew what to make of the pictures.

“And only two adults knew they were looking at stars,” she said.

Fischer is hopeful that the Starlight Ordinance, recently introduced by Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), will have enough backing to pass separate votes by the county board and forest preserve district board. A hearing is set for Wednesday. If the measure passes committee, it will be presented to the boards, which have the same members.

In addition to giving astronomers better night sky vision, ordinance supporters say less ambient light would positively affect the health of humans, plants and animals.

The ordinance calls for existing streetlighting to be replaced, once it wears out, with dark-sky lighting, Fischer said.

Dark-sky lighting, she explained, shines downward, while most of the existing lighting also shines upward and outward, diminishing the visibility of the night sky.

Cook County’s light pollution, she said, trespasses more than 100 miles in all directions.

The technology has been around for 20 years, she said, and some communities, including Evergreen Park and parts of Oak Lawn, already have installed some dark-sky lighting.

She says the newer lighting emits less glare and illuminates the streets and sidewalks better.

Without such measures, she said, “We could be the last generation to see starlight.”

Suffredin said the idea for the ordinance grew out of a meeting with a forest preserve district task force. He said he’s always looking for ways to enhance the public’s forest preserve experience.

“Being able to see stars at night would do that,” he said.

The measure would not cost taxpayers any additional money, he said.

“It would simply be making better use of the money we have,” he said.

Art Maurer, director of the Trackman Planetarium at Joliet Junior College, said when he first moved to Crete years ago, he could see the Milky Way from his back yard. He can still see stars over the third magnitude, a scale for brightness, but new retail centers and developments have lightened up much of the sky, blotting out the famous galaxy.

“It’s certainly not what it used to be,” he said.

But he can’t imagine that preserving starlight will ever be a big priority in this day of economic struggles and budgetary cutbacks.

“We astronomy lovers are few and far between,” he said.

Besides, he added, “You don’t have to go far to get skies dark enough to see lots of stars.”

The Monee Reservoir and the area north of Princeton are among favorite destinations of Chicago area stargazers, he said.

Carol Baker, director of curriculum for science and music in Community High School District 218, said, “While I agree with the concern and premise, I do not believe that (such an ordinance) will solve the problem.”

Reducing light pollution by replacing some street lamps is a noble gesture, she said, but it would result in only a little reduction of the problem.

“I live near forest preserves where there are no streetlights for miles, yet still the light pollution from surrounding communities and from Chicago affect my ability to see all but the brightest stars in the night sky,” she said.

“Money may be better spent on field trips to take students to more rural areas where the night sky will be darker,” she said.

But Drew Carhart, of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting, said replacing old lights with lights that are dark-sky friendly should not cost any more than installing traditional lights, especially now that the former is readily available on the market.

“Indoors, just about all the light a lamp makes is useful; whatever shines on the wall or ceiling reflects back into the room,” he said. “Outside, the largest efficiency problems aren’t with the lamps ... They center on where the light which the lamps make ends up. This is determined by the engineering of the light fixture. One fixture might get 75 percent of the light from the lamp down to the sidewalk, roadway or other area the light was installed to illuminate, while another might do far worse.”

Lights that point their beams downward help preserve darkness above, giving Earthlings the opportunity to see stars, he said.

But Drew Carhart, of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting, said replacing old lights with lights that are dark-sky friendly should not cost any more than installing traditional lights, especially now that the former is readily available on the market.

“Indoors, just about all the light a lamp makes is useful; whatever shines on the wall or ceiling reflects back into the room,” he said. “Outside, the largest efficiency problems aren’t with the lamps ... They center on where the light which the lamps make ends up. This is determined by the engineering of the light fixture. One fixture might get 75 percent of the light from the lamp down to the sidewalk, roadway or other area the light was installed to illuminate, while another might do far worse.”

Lights that point their beams downward help preserve darkness above, giving Earthlings the opportunity to see stars, he said.



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