Long before hurricane season begins, forecasts and predictions for the number and intensity of tropical storms make headlines.
One report suggests a total of 15 named storms, eight hurricanes and four intense hurricanes for the 2011 season. Another calculates that Beaufort County has a 4.9 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane, far above the historical average of 2.8 percent.
The usefulness of such predictions are depends on whom you ask.
Todd Ferguson, Beaufort County's emergency management director, said hurricane forecasts give him an idea of what type of season to expect, but they don't change how the county prepares for the possibility of a hurricane strike.
"We plan for the one that may hit us," he said. "If it was one storm or 25 storms, I prepare the same way."
William Winn, the county's director of public safety, said interest in hurricane forecasts is high among the public, and he's "constantly amazed" at the number of people who ask him for perspective on the latest predictions. But he doesn't think residents are desensitized to the real threat if predictions for a dire year don't affect Beaufort County.
People will act, Winn said, when they "believe there's a threat to them or their families."
Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for WSI, a Weather Channel company that releases hurricane forecasts, said his group's data were developed for clients in the energy and insurance industries.
Others -- emergency managers in coastal areas, for instance -- may or may not find value in the figures.
"Some throw them right in the garbage, while others find them quite useful for planning purposes," Crawford said in an email.
WSI's forecasts are based on statistical modeling of tropical storm data dating to 1950. Essentially, a prediction from the model is a statement of what hurricane activity was like in years that look similar to the current one, based on measurements such as ocean temperatures and wind shear.
Meteorologists who forecast hurricane activity are up front about the challenges of predicting global weather patterns months in advance, and the inaccuracy inherent in such a task.
"Everyone should realize that it is impossible to precisely predict this season's hurricane activity in early April," states a report from Colorado State University scientists Philip Klotzbach and William Gray. "We issue these forecasts to satisfy the curiosity of the general public and to bring attention to the hurricane problem."
As the science behind the forecasts progresses, Crawford said accuracy will likely improve.
But for county staff trained in emergency response, even the best forecast is no substitute for being well prepared.
"It's all speculation," Ferguson said. "There is a science to it, but as you know, you can't predict the weather."