VIDEO: Chicago stargazers want to bring back the night sky

By Yining Zhou

Chicago is missing the stars, and Audrey Fischer wants them back. As the President of Chicago Astronomical Society, Fischer started a project called “One Star at a Time” to raise awareness about the need to reduce light pollution and bring back starlight for future generations.

Serious light pollution has made star gazing in a city like Chicago nearly impossible for the unaided eye.

“Children asked me: Did our stars die?” Fischer said. “This is so sad because we are now raising the first generation that neither have they seen beautiful starlight, but their parents didn’t see either.”

She calls the city light that engulfs the stars “Chicaglow.” And it’s been getting worse for decades.

“I’ve never seen beautiful star skies in Chicago,” stargazer Bob Gadbois said. “I was born in the 40s and the streets were lit then. They’ve got worse and worse. To get to where you can see stars, you have to go to 50 to 100 miles away from the cities into dark areas.”

“That’s pretty sad,” astronomy enthusiast Larry Silvestri said. “There should be at least 600 or more stars in the sky if properly lit or unlit.”

The stars are fading out across the country. According to the National Park Service, at the current rate of increasing light pollution, no dark skies will remain in the continental United States by the year 2025. Not only is the starry night lost, but with it goes the culture heritage that has been passed down for centuries.

“Every culture in existence has stories about the stars,” said Tony Harris, a member of Chicago Astronomical Society. “For over a thousand years, our ancestors have looked at the skies and wondered what the stars were and how far away they were. And just in the last hundred years or so, we really started to know these things really well. And it’s this point of time that we are erasing the skies from our cultures and from our heritage.

“I think it’s every child’s birth right to be able to look at the night sky light and see stars.” he said.

“What if Galileo grew up and has never seen stars in the sky? What if Isaac Newton grew up and has never seen stars in the sky?” said Drew Carhart, head of Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting. “Would they ever have that spark of interest in the natural world around them that let them discover the things are amazingly important?”

The largest contributor of light pollution in the city is outdoor lighting on streets and homes, especially those lights that are poorly designed and emit light sideways and upwards.

“[The] simple thing that we have to do is put a cap on them so they are directed to go down on target to the streets and sidewalks,” Fischer said. “They need a lamp shade.”

Carhart agreed, but he pointed out that it’s actually better to take the direction of the light into consideration when designing the fixtures themselves.

In Disney’s television programs, the fairy Tinkerbell splashes stars onto the skies over Cinderella’s castle. Fischer grew up in that world, and she sometimes wishes she had Tinkerbell’s magic wand. But she knows that’s not the real solution.

“There’s no longer a need for compromise.” Fischer said. “We don’t need Tinkerbell to come here and splash [the] sky with stars. We can have our starlight and our city light too. We have the smarts to do it.”

Photo at top: Chicago skyline as it could be without light pollution  – showing the Milky Way. Composite image by Yining Zhou.


In Chicago, watch Medill Reports video stories on CAN-TV channel 27