Misleading articles falsely claim that mobile phones attract lightning
Claim: There is an electrostatic force between mobile phones and charged particles in clouds that can cause mobile phones to be hit by lightning. Activating flight mode on mobile phones helps avoid lightning strikes. Activating flight mode also helps avoid interference during WhatsApp calls. Activating flight mode switches off all of a mobile phone’s sensors and software functions. Activating flight mode extends the battery life of mobile phones in areas without network coverage.
Fact: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that mobile phones attract lightning. Activating flight mode on mobile phones does not help avoid lightning strikes. WhatsApp does not work when flight mode is activated, except when WiFi data is being used. Activating flight mode does not turn all of a phone’s sensors and software functions off. There is not enough evidence to suggest that activating flight mode causes a significant increase in the battery life of phones in areas without network coverage.
This viral Pashto video shared by PTV21 on Facebook states that, “after a NATO squad was hit by lightning in Afghanistan, investigators concluded that the members of the squad had their cell phones turned on. The cell phones attracted lightning that hit their plane and consequently destroyed the squad.”
The person speaking in the video also claims that “the lightning strike was caused by electrostatic current between the phone and the electric charge in the clouds.”
He adds that activating flight mode on a mobile phone helps avoid such lightning strikes. He also claims that another benefit of activating flight mode is that WhatsApp calls are not hampered by interference from regular network calls. Finally, he says, “when you turn flight mode on, all the sensors and software stop working on your phone which helps in extending the usage time of the phone,” and that “if you are visiting an area with no signals, turning the flight mode on will help extend the battery life of the phone.”
The post has garnered almost 2 million views and has been shared over 62,000 times.
There is no publicly available NATO document that states that any squad or personnel were hit by lightning in Afghanistan. No media organization has reported such an incident either.
This research paper from Stanford University states that, “The chances of a cell phone being struck by lightning is less likely, it can happen, although probably more as a function of the person using the phone being the tallest thing around when lightning strikes rather than anything having to do with the phone itself.”
Similarly, Scienceline.org quotes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service lightning expert John Jensenius stating that, “Cell phones, small metal items, jewellery, etc., do not attract lightning. Nothing attracts lightning. Lightning tends to strike taller objects.”
“It’s the place you’re located that is more of a concern than anything else. If you’re near a cell phone tower, that’s bad because lightning will come and hit the cell phone tower,” says an article on the subject by accuweather.com – one of the biggest weather forecasting organizations on the internet.
Mobile phones rely on electromagnetic waves to function, not the electrostatic force which tends to cause lightning. More often than not, it is the location of a phone or phone user during a thunderstorm that makes the difference, not the phone’s functions. This means that the theory that activating flight mode on a mobile phone can help avoid lightning strikes is just a myth.
According to Cambridge Dictionary, flight mode is a function on a mobile phone or other electronic devices that prevents it from connecting to the internet. This function is typically used for safety when travelling in a plane.
Since flight mode disables cellular radio, the claim that it can prevent interference on Whatsapp calls is also misleading. WhatsApp requires an internet connection to work and although new phones have the option to turn WiFi on while in flight mode, the video does not refer to WiFi at any point.
Further, activating flight mode does not turn all of a phone’s sensors and software functions off. Functions including video, WiFi, GPS, gyroscope, fingerprint readers, facial recognition, and so on, all work while a phone is in flight mode. Finally, in the absence of network coverage, functions that rely on the internet will not work, whether or not flight mode is activated. Therefore, activating flight mode cannot be said to have a real impact on battery life when in areas with poor network coverage or no network coverage.
Conclusion: Mobile phones do not “attract” lightning. The chances of a lightning bolt hitting a mobile phone are high only when the phone is the highest object in an area with an active thunderstorm. The same applies to other objects. Flight mode is an option provided on electronic devices, including cell phones, to ensure their safe operation during flights. Flight mode does not decrease interference during Whatsapp calls, nor does it switch off all of a phone’s functions. It is also misleading to suggest that activating flight mode increases a phone’s battery life in areas with no network coverage.