A pre-release example of the State Department’s new color-coded risk-assessment Web page, which will go live in January.

If you never quite grasped the difference between a "Travel Warning" and "Travel Alert," you are not alone. The State Department's online risk-assessment categories were as indecipherable as stalactites and stalagmites. But the struggle is over. The agency has scrapped the old standard for a more comprehensible and eye-catching system.

"We wanted to make it clear what our advice was," said Kevin Brosnahan, a State Department spokesman, "and improve our communication with U.S. citizens."

After a year-long review, the agency will reveal its 2.0 version around Jan. 10. Out: the separate list of warnings and alerts for individual countries. In: an advisory for every nation featuring a color-coded grade of Level 1 (blue, lowest risk) to Level 4 (red, highest). The designation will appear at the top of each country's profile page along with an interactive map.

The department is still assigning levels to countries and has not released its assessments to the public. However, as an example, Brosnahan said Canada would likely be a Level 1, which means "Exercise Normal Precautions," and North Korea would be a Level 4, which translates to "Do Not Travel." For a yellow Level 2 country, travelers should "Exercise Increased Caution"; for orange Level 3, "Reconsider Travel."

The agency could appoint several numbers to one country, based on the peaks and valleys of security threats in different regions. For instance, in Turkey, Istanbul might receive a lower level of risk than the country's southeastern border with Syria. The designations will change as needed — if there is, say, a terrorist attack, natural disaster or disease outbreak. Each profile will also feature gadget-friendly icons representing such concerns as crime, health epidemics, natural disasters, terrorism, civil unrest and time-sensitive events such as elections.

In addition, the department has simplified the communications it sends through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, the stay-in-touch system available free to all U.S. travelers. Security and emergency messages will consolidate into singular alerts.

One element, however, will not change: the Worldwide Caution, which the agency reissued as recently as early December.

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