MARTY RUSSELL: I don't think sunscreen will help with that

If Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, were really that smart, he’d have blamed sunspots for the failure of the new iPhone this week when it refused to connect to the network at its unveiling.
The official start of summer – the summer solstice – is still a few weeks away on June 21 but I think anyone who has stepped outside recently would be willing to agree that summer weather has already arrived. Here in the South that means oppressive heat and humidity which is one reason I think people are upset with President Barack Obama over his handling of the oil spill in the Gulf.
People want the president to show some real anger over the crisis, perhaps even punch out that smug BP CEO live on camera but, instead, Obama comes to the Gulf Coast on three different occasions and doesn’t even break a sweat. In Louisiana. In the summertime. The man’s just too cool.
Meanwhile the rest of us are dripping, panting and going through a stick of deodorant a day just trying to survive the sauna of summer in the South. If I were the president’s adviser I’d advise him to invest in some fake sweat before his next visit to the Gulf.
But as bad as summers here in the South can be, they may just be about to get worse. Space weather forecasters – yes, the National Weather Service actually has a space weather arm – predict that we are entering a period of solar maximum, the peak of an 11-year sunspot cycle that spawns massive solar storms.
While the storms, huge flares of plasma and electromagnetic radiation thrown off by the sun, don’t actually cause the Earth to get any hotter, thank goodness, they can cause all sorts of electrical disruptions including blackouts, failures of communication systems and interference with things like auto pilots on planes, GPS systems and computers.
NASA predicts the solar maximum will begin this year and continue through 2012 and is likely to be the worst outbreak of solar activity since 1958. It could also be the most damaging and noticeable bout of solar weather we’ve ever experienced simply because so much of what we now depend on in our daily lives relies on electronics, unlike the 1958 outbreak.
For instance, practically everything we do now days involves computers and satellites from our jobs to checking our e-mails to watching satellite TV. In 1958, only two satellites – Sputnik in 1957 and Explorer in 1958 – had ever been launched and neither of them actually did anything except circle the Earth.
So get ready for it. Scientists say satellites are extremely vulnerable to the solar storms because of their delicate electronics and the fact that they are outside of the Earth’s protective atmosphere. Of course, there could be a bright side. When their cell phones no longer work, maybe my students will pay attention in class.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University, MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu

Marty Russell