• Dr. Timothy Smith

Can Cell Phones Attract Lightning?


Photo Source: Public Domain Pictures

With the epic storm Hurricane Florence barrelling down on the Carolinas, safety comes to the forefront of my mind. Massive storms bring strong winds, heavy rain, flooding as well as thunder and lightning. One of my earliest memories back in Cleveland, OH at an age not even old enough to go to kindergarten, entailed lightning. It was the Fourth of July, and the local news covered the untimely death of a young couple that had taken shelter from a storm during their picnic under a large tree. Lightning struck that tree, killing both of them instantly. My mom and grandparents spoke over and over again of the mistake of sheltering under a tree during a thunderstorm. Since then, I have exercised caution in a thunder storm, avoiding tall objects like trees or metal fences and staying away from windows, but growing up I did not have the now ordinary cellphone or other hand-held electrical devices. Naturally, the question arises whether these little devices made of metal, glass, and plastic pose any additional risk of injury by a lightning strike. Could we perhaps be carrying around little lightning rods?

Lightning, or atmospheric electrical discharge, happens with the buildup of negative electrical charge on the bottom of clouds and the subsequent rapid discharge of electricity to the earth. A lightning bolt lasts only a fraction of a second, but in that time, massive amounts of energy get released. According to an article by Paul Dvorak titled “How Many Volts in a Lightning Strike?” the author claims that an average lightning bolt delivers over 10,000,000,000 watts of power in a flash, which he calculates produces enough power to run fifty-six homes for a week. Such power poses a danger to people, plants, animals, and electrical devices.

Could we be putting ourselves at risk by carrying around our cellphones in a thunderstorm? Some people have spread the idea that lightning follows the radio waves emitted by cellphones. A paper available from Stanford.edu by Shiv Agarwal discounts the notion that radio waves from cell phones attract lightning. Lightning does not follow radio waves, and therefore lightning will not be attracted to cellphones. However, a paper published in 2006 by the British Medical Journal titled, “Injury by Lightning Strike While Using Mobile Phone,” focuses on the injury suffered by a girl struck by lightning while on her cell phone. The authors speculate that the phone concentrated the energy of the lightning strike. However, in a rebuttal by the editor of the British Medical Journal, Chris W. Althaus, suggests that cellphones do not have enough metal to attract lightning. Rather, people get struck by lightning by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Storms pose a danger from wind, flooding, and lightning. Careful preparation to take shelter from a storm in a sturdy building or home provides excellent protection from lightning and rain, but some warnings deserve attention. For example, talking on a corded phone can cause an electric shock from lightning because the phone’s wires connect directly to the outside. Furthermore, taking a shower or bath during a storm increases your chance of being electrocuted because the metal pipes and water can conduct electricity if lightning strikes your house. In contrast, glass poorly conducts electricity, and standing by a window does not increase your risk of being struck by lightning. However, experts warn against standing by a window in a storm in case lightning strikes the house and shatters the glass, spraying you with shards of glass. Cell phones do not seem to increase one’s chance of being struck by lightning, but you should keep it charged and handy to quickly call for help if something does go wrong in a storm. There is still debate going on about the danger of cell phones in electrical storms, so try to limit your time outside with your phone to stay on the safe side. With these tips, be sure to keep yourself and your family safe from the impending storms as well as any future storms that may come your way.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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