Solar Storm: A Real-World Case for Plain Language

Think that plain language in government doesn’t matter? That you don’t need good writers to communicate the work of your taxpayer-funded agency?

Consider this Washington Post article on the approaching solar storm:

Solar storm incoming: Federal agencies provide inconsistent, confusing information

NOAA and NASA provide two different forecasts on the incoming solar storm, “a wave of plasma stoked by an X-class solar flare.”

X-class solar flare! That sounds pretty ominous doesn’t it? X-class is the worst, right? Should I move into the basement and prepare for the end of the world?

NOAA and NASA don’t agree on when the storm will hit or its severity. That’s bad enough but I challenge anyone without a PhD in Astrophysics to untangle the acronym-choked language that the two agencies use:


The latest model run now indicates the CME associated with yesterday’s R3 (Strong) Radio Blackout event will impact the earth’s magnetic field around 9:00 a.m. EDT (1300 UTC) on Saturday, July 14. SWPC is forecasting category G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm activity then, with a chance of G2 (Moderate) levels at times through July 15. The S1 (Minor) Solar Radiation Storm persists just above event threshold. Region 1520 has decayed in the past 12 hours, but is still potentially eruptive.


Based on preliminary heliospheric modeling carried out at NASA GSFC Space Weather Center, it is estimated that the CME may impact Earth, Messenger, Spitzer, MSL, Mars. Simulations indicate that the leading edge of the CME will reach Earth at about 2012-07-14T09:17Z (plus minus 7 hours). The roughly estimated expected range of the Kp maximum (Kp is a measure of geomagnetic disturbance levels ranging 0 – 9) is 6-8 (moderate to severe).

What on earth does this mean? Like most people, I’m just wondering if I need to unplug my computer or not. Will GPS work? Will this effect cell phone coverage? I’m sure people in the DC area recovering from the derecho would want to know if this will impact the electrical grid.

It would be easy to read this information and panic – “geomagnetic disturbance” sounds like the plot from the movie 2012. Information is provided but without any explanation or context.

NOAA and NASA – I know you have people there who can write. I’ve met them. Hire more of them and have them translate your work into terms that ordinary people can understand.

NASA, to their credit, responded to Washington Post blog post. NOAA has not. Right now, 24 hours after the story was published, there are more than 170 comments. If you want a window into what the public thinks – good, bad and ugly – read the comments. Clearer and simpler communication would lessen public confusion.

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Peter Sperry

In the budget world, I find it is often fairly easy to just prepare two versions of my analysis, a non technical bullet point 1-3 pager that anyone can understand at a basic level; and a more detailed, technical examination filled with professional jargon etc. Distribute the summary first and have the details available upon request. If you write the summary well enough, you do not get very many questions about the details.

FYI on the solar flares — “Unusually strong, but not dangerous, solar flares will keep satellite operators and communications technicians working around the clock for the next week or two and may add additional heat to late summer temperatures; but are unlikely to impact properly shielded ground based personal electronic devices.” — Basic translation of the various articles I’ve read on the subject over the past week.

Joe Flood

Peter – that’s an excellent suggestion. I don’t understand why more agencies don’t do that. Bullet points are great for the web too, since they allow people to scan down the page and pick out the most important information.

Here’s a story from ABC News on the same subject:

It has a lede with the key information, explains the technical terms used and includes a quote from an expert. Is that so hard?