In the weeks leading to hurricane season, forecasts and predictions for the number and intensity of tropical storms routinely make headlines.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, predicts between nine and 15 named storms during the 2012 season, with four to eight hurricanes and as many as three storms that reach Category 3 wind-speeds or higher.
Other reports by private firms and academic researchers predict 10 to 12 named storms during the unofficial six-month hurricane season, which begins today.
But just how good are those predictions this early in the season, especially when it's still not clear whether factors such as El Niño, which can reduce hurricane activity, will be present?
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Over the past 20 years, new technologies like robotic boats, manned and unmanned aircraft, and weather satellites have allowed scientists and forecasters to track storms earlier than before and with better accuracy. Over the same period, early-season hurricane predictions have been based largely on historical data.
For example, predictions are made in large part by analyzing wind and sea conditions for the current year and comparing them to years with similar conditions, said Gerry Bell of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
"There is uncertainly in the predictions and in the climate patterns themselves," he said. If El Niño forms (there will probably be) about nine or 10 named storms. If not, he expects the number of named storms will be closer to 15. "The range is a bit wider this year because of the inherent uncertainty based on the weather."
Meteorologists who forecast hurricane activity acknowledge 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," according to 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."
Beyond the challenges of early-season predictions, Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist at WSI Corp., a Weather Channel subsidiary, said it's impossible to know where storms will hit this far in advance.
He says small-scale features in the atmosphere that are unpredictable months ahead of time often determine where storms will travel once they've formed. That said, Crawford predicts the Southeast is "slightly less likely" than normal to be hit by a hurricane.
For a Beaufort County staff trained in emergency response, even the best forecast is no substitute for being well prepared.
"It's all speculation," says Todd Ferguson, Beaufort County's emergency management director. "There is a science to it, but as you know, you can't predict the weather."