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I was out on a field trip with another family when there was a thunderstorm. According to the people in this family, I have to switch off my mobile phone during the thunderstorm, because the "waves" emitted by the phone "attracts lightning".

I initially refused, thinking that mobile phones don't "attract lightning", but an elderly member of this family started panicking and looked visibly horrified when I continued to use my phone to take pictures. When the rain and thunders started, she tried to grab my phone to switch it off. Seeing how serious she was, I complied and switched off my phone.

Some doctors in 2006 shared this concern.:

"This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather to prevent future fatal consequences from lightning strike injuries related to mobile phones," say the authors

The question is: do I have to switch off my mobile phone during a thunderstorm to avoid "attracting lightning"?

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    Note that the linked article does not claim that mobile phones attract lightning strikes. It claims that if you are struck by lightning, carrying a conductive object (such as a phone) makes you more likely to suffer serious injury or death as a result. Also note that the article only claims four known cases of this happening with phones (the one in the paper, plus three other newspaper reports) worldwide. – Dave Sherohman May 4 at 8:33
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    The one case described in the link was of a person in an open field during a thunderstorm. That's a good way to get hit by lightning, and it doesn't depend on there being a phone present. Doctors aren't necessarily the right people to ask about the cause of the lightning strike. They're the best to ask about how to treat a person after a lightning strike, but they aren't physicists. – JRE May 4 at 8:36
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    I suspect that this theory may have developed from the relatively strong theory that using a "mobile radio" could attract lightning. This was likely true 40 years ago when a mobile radio in a vehicle (or possibly a military-style "walkie-talkie") would use 5-50 watts of power and transmit using a metallic antenna of 6 inches to 2-4 feet. This was sufficient to ionize the surrounding air, creating a bigger "target" for lightning. But modern cell phones use much less power and do not have stick antennas. – Daniel R Hicks May 4 at 18:30
  • Honestly, how is that supposed to work? But I could imagine the cellphone might be damaged if the user gets struck by lightning. – RedSonja May 5 at 6:17
  • I’m told that you should stand with your feet together in case lightning strikes very close near to you, to reduce the voltage difference. Cows are quite vulnerable to this with two meters distance between their legs. – gnasher729 May 5 at 8:38
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No, mobile phones do not attract lightning strikes.

NPR specifically addressed this BMJ article in Debunking the Cell Phone-Lightning Connection on August 2, 2006:

You may have heard something a few weeks ago about how getting struck by lightning is even worse if you're carrying a cell phone. Many news organizations reported about the cell phone-lightning connection that appeared in the British Medical Journal.

But, did you hear anything about the follow-up letters in the same journal, the ones that debunked the first report? Probably not.

The letters referenced in this piece appear in BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 333, No. 7558 (8 July 2006), p. 96. In addition to the basic physics of how electricity works, these letters also cite the low quantity of metal in mobile phones, the lack of a statistical rise in lightning strikes as mobile phone usage has become ubiquitous, and that the original article's claim that the Australian Lightning Protection Standard advises against mobile phone usage during thunderstorms is incorrect - it advises against corded phone usage during thunderstorms and suggests mobile phones as a recommended alternative. In the US, the NOAA makes this same recommendation (emphasis mine):

However, when inside during a thunderstorm, avoid contact with anything that could conduct a lightning strike to you, including anything that plugs into a wall outlet, corded phones, plumbing, metal doors, and window frames.

This means do not take a shower or bath during a thunder storm. Battery-operated computers and cellphones are fine.


I was also able to find a more extensive 2014 paper titled "On the Absurdity of 'Mobile Phone Triggered Lightning'", by Li Daxiao of the Meteorological Bureau of Santai County, China, and published in Meteorological & Environmental Research; Nov2014, Vol. 5 Issue 11, p42-45. (ISSN 21523940; I was not able to find a DOI or an open-access link to the paper.)

The abstract of the paper reads:

That making phone calls had nothing to do with lightning strike was proved from the aspects of radio wave characteristics, receiving and transmitting frequency, power as well as the electromagnetic induction of mobile phones. And through assuming mobile phone could trigger lightning, the probable death toll disproved the absurdity of mobile phone triggered lightning. And we concluded that making phone calls in thundery days would not increase the probability of lightning stroke, and calls could be made in thundery days as long as in the safe position.

After examining the question from seven different angles, the "Conclusion" paragraph states:

The absurdity of "mobile phone could trigger lightning stroke" not only lies in it ignores the nature of the events but only focuses on the surface, but more importantly it violates the scientific law and is entirely a misunderstanding of the knowledge of lightning protection and physics. In no case could mobile phone trigger lightning stroke. People got stricken by lightning when making phone calls is simply because they stand at the wrong place in the improper time. As long as in the safe place, people can make phone calls even in thundery days.

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