Did Your Cell Phone Die? Could It Be Space Weather?

Did Your Cell Phone Die? Could It Be Space Weather?

This morning, I was not being able to get GPS directions using my cell phone. Having taken the phone in and out of airplane mode a few times with no real success, I was still perplexed why the cell would not give directions. Noticing the weather around me was fine, but the stereo suddenly cut off and lights started flickering, a light bulb went off in my head as to the likely source: The answer may be space weather! I ran to my charging cell phone to unplug it from the outlet, which is something you should do if space weather is affecting your geographic area.

Read on to see what may affect your cell phone’s non-functionality and how space weather may affect your cell phone’s GPS such as sending you in repeated U-turns.

Having taught space weather several times at the largest university in the United States, through AstroPictionary posts I bring to you that same level of training. In this post, I will introduce various astronomy, astrophysics, physics, and space weather terminology that is explained via video at my AstroPictonary YouTube Channel. You will see these as link outs to videos or embedded videos to help you better understand one of the largest vocabularies of the sciences.

How To Self Fix Your Phone if Suddenly Not Working

If you find yourself in a position where your cell phone is just not working correctly, then try one or more of the following:

Image of broken cell courtesy of Santeri Viinamäki under CC BY-SA 4.0
  • place your cell phone in and then out of airplane mode;
  • turn cell phone off and then back on;
  • ask someone next to you to call or text your phone to see if it is receiving as your network may be down in your location;
  • go outside if your cell service is 5G, as high frequency 5G radio waves in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum have a hard time penetrating building walls;
  • if in a crowded area where many people are using cell phones and you are on a higher frequency (mm-wave) 5G network, walk a short distance away for your phone to get picked up by another nearby 5G cell tower (2G/3G/4G networks use cell towers that cover longer distances, so don’t bother walking for your cell to get picked up by another 3G/4G tower unless you want to get a lot of steps in for your health 😀 ); and
  • inspect phone for damage like that shown in the image; photons damaged by water usually won’t turn on.

If your cell is still is not working correctly, then your cell phone’s service may be interrupted. See the next section on how cell phones communicate with network towers and how this service may be hampered.

How Cell Phone Communicates with Towers

Sketch courtesy of Goodtiming8871 under CC BY-SA 4.0

If your cell service is 3G or 4G and your cell is switched on, your cell phone periodically pings a nearby 3G/4G tower like the tall black one shown in the center of the 4G-5G mobile Network infrastructure graphic shown above. If your have a 5G network cell phone and your cell phone is switched on, then your cell phone pings a nearby 5G cell tower as shown in the graphic by sketches of keyhole shapes surrounded by three consecutive semi-circles. Keep in mind that if your cell phone is switched off, then your phone does not periodically ping the towers; you cell phone periodically pings whether just switched on or in use.

As shown in the 4G-5G mobile Network infrastructure graphic, a 3G/4G network covers a larger geographical range. 5G networks cover smaller geographical regions, with each region called a ‘cell’ (don’t confuse a cell phone with a 5G circular geographic region that a 5G network serves, which is all called a cell). Many more 5G cells are needed to cover the same geographic region that one 3G or 4G network serves as the graphic above shows.

If you are on a 3G or 4G network and your cell phone is not working and you already trouble shoot using the above list, then look around you and see if you are in a densely populated area and if many of these nearby people are using their cell phones. If you are at a country or county fair, at a concert, or at an airshow, for example, many people may be trying to communicate at the same time using the same network, clogging the system. If so, or your cell service is non-existent as you are in a poorly serviced 3G/4G network such as a national park, then your best solution is to find a land line or get in a car and drive away from the crowd until your cell phone gets picked up by the next nearby 3G/4G tower.

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Beall under CC BY 4.0

If you have a 5G cell and using a 5G network, then your cell service is usually hampered for different reasons. Let’s take a look at 5G network towers and how they are different to 3G/4G towers.

5G network towers are short, typically 50-200 feet high like the monotower shown in Denver, Colorado image with the blue car. In comparison, 3G/4G network towers are 200-400 feet tall, much higher. Although 3G/4G networks cover a larger area, 5G network towers are easier and quicker to install.

Although 5G towers provide faster speeds, allow for more simultaneous users, and have shorter delays (i.e., low latency) of service, all of these improvements come at a price: Many more 5G network towers are needed as 5G network covers shorter distances than 3G/4G networks.

Higher frequency 5G network radio band waves travel shorter distances than 2G, 3G, 4G network radio waves. In addition, higher frequency mm-wave 5G networks cannot easily penetrate into buildings made of concrete, metal, or glass, for example, whereas 2G, 3G, 4G networks do not have this problem.

If your 5G cell is having trouble, then the problem is likely your phone is not in a direct line of sight to the 5G network antenna tower. Look for one of the following problems:

Cell tower image on building courtesy of IToms under CC BY SA 4.0
  • Check to see if you are within a cell of the 5G network as your phone needs to be within a small network cell to get decent service; look around for a 5G network tower like the one shown in the Denver, Colorado image above or a 5G antenna placed on top of a building like the one shown in the Germany image; since 5G network antennae are small, look for these on top of a nearby light pole or on top of a nearby streetlamp, for example; your 5G phone needs be within a 5G cell to get decent service.
  • Using 5G network mm-wave frequency will always give poor service if your cell phone is located inside a building; until more 5G cells are placed in your area (i.e., densify your work, apartment, condo buildings, for example, or densify nearby streets), you need to go outside if your cell phone is using this higher frequency band of the 5G network.
  • If you can see a nearby 5G antenna, but still get poor service, check the direction the antenna is pointing; move your cell to intercept the path that the antennae is pointing.
  • If you can see a nearby 5G antenna, but still get poor service, check the height of the 5G antenna; if the tower is too short, move closer so the signal from the tower can better reach your cell phone.
  • If you can see a nearby 5G antenna, but still get poor service, then look for anything blocking the signal path from your cell to the 5G antenna such as trees and vegetation; move around any trees or vegetation to unblock the signal’s path.

If your cell is still is not working correctly, then check the local weather around you. The next section is a crash course on how cell service may be disrupted due to the weather around you.

How Weather Affects Cell Phone Communication

caption: image of cell phone alert courtesy of Tony Webster under CC BY 2.0. An emergency weather alert from the National Weather Service warns of a flash flood warning on an Android Pixel 3 XL smartphone, during a thunderstorm in Austin, Texas: “Emergency alert: Severe – Flash Flood Warning this area til 12:15 PM CDT. Avoid flood areas. -NWS”

Cell phone service can be hampered by weather. Regardless if the weather is due to rain downpours causing flash flooding (see emergency weather alert shown on cell phone image above), blizzards, sleet, dense fog, etc., any atmospheric water between your cell phone and your cell’s network tower hampers your network’s service. Even high humidity can cause a dropped call. Seasons can also affect network service, where rainy seasons could mean more dropped calls. Emergency alerts, like the one shown above, are usually sent before any impending bad weather so you can prepare.

Image of lightning courtesy of Mircea Madau under Public Domain

Your cell phone service and rain do not mix well. Rain water conducts electricity and rain water is impure; rain water contains impurities like salt, and salt breaks down into ions when dissolved in water. As ions conduct electricity, he more rain water present in the atmosphere, the more conduction of electricity.

Radio waves to and from your cell phone get bounced around by these ions. As such, your cell phone experiences a propagation delay or call degradation: If you are placing a cell phone call, you may notice a long delay before your phone starts ringing or you may notice that your phone does not seem to connect at all; this slow or lack of service is propagation delay. If your call did manage to get through and you hear noise on the phone, then your signal is degraded. Both propagation delay and signal degradation are common experiences during days where local weather involves dense atmospheric water.

If thunderstorms are present in your geographical area, electrical signals from lightning strikes (see the image of lightning over Oradea, Romania above) can also interfere with a signal connecting or trying to connect between your cell phone and the network’s tower. If lighting strikes a nearby network service tower, resulting in damaged equipment, you may find yourself without cell service in that local area for a while.

In short, the more impure water like rain water between your cell and your network’s cell tower due to weather, the poorer your cell’s service. You may notice:

  • noise on call
  • longer connection times
  • no connection of call
  • dropped calls

One solution is to wait out the weather. Another is to move away from the weather to get better cell reception; however, if the weather is bad, then you are better off sheltering in place and waiting out the weather to regain cell phone service.

If your cell phone is still is not giving GPS directions properly and the problem is not the local weather then check the space weather. The next section is a crash course on how GPS directions using your cell phone may be disrupted due to space weather.

How Space Weather May Affect Cell Phone’s Service

Space weather is environmental conditions caused by geomagnetic or solar storms. The AstroPictionary YouTube video below explains space weather and how space weather may affect Earth.

AstroPictionary YouTube video on Space Weather

For Earth, a geomagnetic storm is a disturbance in Earth’s magnetosphere. Since geomagnetic storms are usually caused by events in the Sun’s atmosphere such as a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, geomagnetic storms are sometimes referred to as solar storms. The AstroPictionary YouTube video shown below explains these types of space weather storms.

caption: YouTube video on geomagnetic storms

YouTube video on geomagnetic storms

If Earth happens to be in the way of a solar event, then Earth’s magnetosphere might be affected to the point where a space weather event could affect your daily life.

The sketch below shows the Sun in ultraviolet (UV) band wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum at the top, which recently had a solar flare event. Solar flare protons and energetic electrons are seen traveling through interplanetary space toward Earth. Along the way, these protons and electrons may damage satellite communications, electronics on spacecrafts, electrical systems on airplanes, for example, as shown in the graphic.

sketch courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

Earth’s ionospheric electrical currents may also be affected: Solar storms can enhance electrojets in Earth’s ionosphere or, more specifically, above Earth’s magnetic equator

and above Earth’s Northern and Southern Polar Circles of the ionosphere. Enhanced magnetic fields around the enhanced electrojets induces up to 6 Volts per kilometer on Earth’s surface, which thus causes geomagnetically-induced currents (GICs). The AstroPictionary YouTube video shown below explains GICs.

AstroPictionary YouTube video on GICs

GICs enter power systems through ground connections. In addition, GICs can be transmitted through submarine communication cables and pipelines.

Because cell towers communicate with space satellites, GPS navigation using your cell phone may be affected during a geomagnetic storm. Your cell phone’s GPS may not work; your app on your phone may not start or your app may lose signal reception, which is like a dropped call. Your cell phone’s GPS may not be able to accurately find your destination; your cell’s GPS may not accurately determine a range to your destination.

Although your cell’s GPS is likely affected, your cell phone’s calls sent or received are usually not disrupted due to space weather events. Your cell’s phone service uses cell towers on the ground of Earth that communicate with each other.

Sketch of MMES courtesy of historicair under CC BY-SA 3.0

If your cell phone is a satellite phone (i.e., it connects to space satellites), such as the ones used on ships, then this type of cell phone can be affected by space weather. The sketch below shows Maritime Mobile Satellite Service (MMSS) around the Earth. Besides serving as navigation aides, these satellites provide ships with mobile satellite service for ship-to-shore calls.

If some of these satellites are taken down for service due to an impending solar storm, ship navigation and ship communications may be disrupted. If satellites are in the path of a solar storm and not taken out of service before being hit by the storm, these satellites may become damaged; if a ship needs this particular satellite for navigation or communication, the ship may have to use alternative modes of navigation and communication.

How Space Weather Can Affect Your Daily Life

Space weather induces GICs through the land on Earth. Besides through land, large currents can also be induced through ocean and sea waters. As conductivity is greater through sea waters than through adjacent lands, an abrupt change in conductivity occurs at the coast. This abrupt change causes an increase in GIC near coastlines. Power stations located near coastlines could experience larger induced currents than power stations located further inland.1 Therefore, if you are located near a shoreline, the power to your house may be more at risk for disruption.

GIC effects are mostly seen at high latitudes, in areas near the Northern and Southern Polar Circles and near Earth’s magnetic equator. However, the stronger the storm, the lower the latitude on Earth GIC effects can be found. How can you know if your geographic area is affected by GICs? Check out this space weather prediction map for February 27, 2022, shown below: Notice that as low of latitude as Florida is affected by ground currents on 2022/02/07. To see if your geographic area of the continental USA is affected, see today’s map.

caption: Geoelectric field map update image at

Besides power to your house being disrupted in a brown out, power networks can become disrupted to the point of complete failure: Brown outs can turn into black outs. Besides disruption to the power grid, disruptions can also be to the normal operations of oil pipelines, gas pipelines, and high speed railways. Your high speed train transportation timetable to and from work may be delayed or canceled. If oil and gas pipelines are significantly affected during a geomagnetic storm due to damage, for example, then you might experience gas shortages and long lines at the gas pump to fill up your car.

GICs can not only pass through railroad tracks and underground pipelines, but also pass through above ground telegraph and telephone wires. Electronic equipment that was attached to telegraph wires have been known to catch on fire and telegraph operators get shocked during large geomagnetic storms. If your area is experiencing a large geomagnetic storm, unplug any important equipment at your home and work. This action also includes unplugging your cell phone during charging as the charging cable or station is usually connected to an outlet in your wall. GICs pass through ground and along pipes, wires, and cables that may go to your house and thus may affect your plugged in electronic equipment. Your cell phone’s motherboard may become severely damaged: A G2 storm can cause a voltage fluctuation that can short circuit your cell phone’s motherboard if your cell phone is plugged in for charging during the voltage fluctuation.

How do you know if your geographic area is affected by a solar or geomagnetic storm? And, if your are is affected, how severe? Go to the Space Weather Prediction Center’s homepage and check out the Geomagnetic Storm Scale G1-G5 rating for the day: A G5 is large geomagnetic storm whereas G1 is a minor storm. A G2 level storm has moderate intensity.

Earth experienced a G2 level storm on April 14, 2022 that caused ground fluctuations as low in latitude as Florida on the continental USA. Effects on your daily life would be voltage fluctuations in any electronic device connected to an outlet in a wall of a building, for example. Look for signs of voltage fluctuations such as blinking lights or equipment like a stereo or TV suddenly switching off or your ceiling fan slowing down.

If you experience voltage fluctuations in electronic equipment continuously connected to the wall such a lamp, ceiling fan, or TV, unplug all important electronic equipment such as a computer and a charging cell phone. Check to see if your geographic area is experiencing a geomagnetic storm. If so and the storm is a G2 or greater, then unplug as many electronics as you can and prepare for a brown out.


1. Liu, C. et al., 2018, J. Space Weather Space Clim., 8, A60

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About the author

Michele M. Montgomery earned a B.S. Degree in Nuclear/Mechanical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, an M.S. Degree in Physics from The University of Alabama with a concentration in Solar Physics, and a Ph.D Degree in Physics from Florida Institute of Technology with a concentration in close binary star systems. She joined the faculty at The University of Central Florida Physics Department in 2004 where she regularly taught astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. In 2006, she noticed that a large, urban college nearby to UCF did not teach astronomy at one of their largest campuses. She began teaching astronomy at this East Campus of Valencia College, a college that has more than 60,000 students; she still teaches four courses of astronomy each fall, spring, and summer semesters. The astronomy program atValencia College East has grown significantly with several more faculty added who teach astronomy.

By 2019, Dr. Montgomery has taught astronomy to more than 10,000 college and university students, both online and face-to-face. Many of her students have gone on to take her astrobiology, astrophysics, and space physics courses. 

By 2016, Dr. Montgomery had co-authored several astronomy texts and quiz/exam banks. Her work appears in several domestic and international astronomy text books (e.g., Horizons by Cengage, Universe by Cengage, Foundations of Astronomy by Cengage) that are used both at the higher education as well as at the high school levels. Starting in Fall 2019, Dr. Montgomery switched gears to authoring digital textbooks and research full time, while still teaching 12 courses of astronomy and up to eight conceptual, algebra, and/or calculus-based physics courses each year. Her research interests are numerical simulations using Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics of close binary star systems. She also regularly is granted telescope time on the NASA's Kepler space telescope for observing eclipsing binary star systems. She has also observed using Gemini South, Keck, and Kitt Peak ground-based telescopes. Her major teaching areas are Astronomy, Astrobiology, Astrophysics, Cosmology, Space Weather/Space Physics.