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Okatie man tracked parking lot shadows for a year. Now, he wants to share what he learned

This SC man followed the sun for a year. Here’s how he logged its movement

Michael Dunigan tracked the sun's movement over a year's time in order to create what is known as an analemma.
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Michael Dunigan tracked the sun's movement over a year's time in order to create what is known as an analemma.

Unless they were looking for the coolest place to park on a sweltering summer day, most people wouldn’t notice the position of the shadows on a shopping center parking lot.

Michael Dunigan of Okatie isn’t like most people.

For the 64-year-old land surveyor, the shadows tell a story. He was so compelled to illustrate that story that he dedicated a year to doing just that.

For the past year, on the 20th day of each month at 4 p.m., Dunigan made notes about the position of the shadow created by the roof of the building where he works, Coastal Surveying just off S.C. 170 in Ridgeland.

When he marked the 12th point on the pavement with a woosh from a can of fluorescent orange spray paint on June 20, he finished the outline of a shape called an analemma. The shape is an elongated figure 8, of sorts, and it’s a representation of the position of the sun in different parts of the sky throughout the year.

“I always thought, for years, the sun went up and came down and basically made an arc,” Dunigan said.

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This illustration shows an analemma on the parking lot of Michael Dunigan’s workplace. The shape is a representation of the position of the sun in the sky through the year. Courtesy Michael Dunigan Submitted

In reality, the Earth’s tilt on its axis and its elliptical orbit around the sun mean the relationship between the two celestial bodies is not that simple.

Though Dunigan has studied physics and math, he said he’s not a scientist or an astronomer. He’s just curious about the way things work and likes to see things with his own eyes.

“It did really allow me to first-hand bring astronomy into my life to see that there’s something fascinating going on,” he said.

A person in ancient times could look at the position of the sun in the sky and be able to tell how much longer it would be before winter days got shorter and colder or when it was time to plant crops, Dunigan said. In a modern society where people can measure days and time down to milliseconds on their ever-present cellphones, keeping track of shadows seems unnecessary.

For Dunigan, though, plotting the points on an analemma was his way of making a concept he’d only read about come alive.

“What I observe — had the pleasure to — has been going on for eons of time, and I just happen to be one person to say, ‘Hey, this is happening.” I get pleasure by getting to share it with anyone else who’s interested,” he said.

So now that a year is up, what’s next for Dunigan’s parking lot analemma? He plans to add more points, taking measurements on the 6th of each month this coming year to better fill out the shape.

In search of ‘fascinating’

Dunigan has done lots of traveling — he’s visited each of the 50 states and several countries — and also has taken deep dives into genealogy, handwriting analysis and writing limericks.

“I’m just that kind of individual who, I get an idea and I just go with it,” he said. “I want to learn about it.”

Dunigan, who is married and is father to a grown son and daughter, said he tries to live his life focusing on three guiding principles: Enthusiasm, curiosity and gratitude.

“We’re all on this planet just for a few short years, but it’s fascinating that we can learn things that make life that much more enjoyable,” he said.

“Each of us are given certain gifts, and we should expand on those. And if we can share it with others, so much the better.”

Lisa Wilson is a reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The 25-year newsroom veteran has worked for papers in Louisiana and Mississippi and is happy to call the Lowcountry home.
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