updated 3/2/2007 12:59:57 PM ET 2007-03-02T17:59:57

The head of the nation's weather and climate research agency says the biggest challenge facing the world is population growth and people's desire to live in coastal areas where they can be endangered by storms.

"I believe that the population issue is huge," Conrad Lautenbacher said Thursday. "And it's not just the U.S., there are six billion ... getting up to seven billion people on the Earth and they all want to live in coastal zones."

Lautenbacher is head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that studies weather and climate and issues storm warnings and forecasts, among other activities.

More than half the U.S. population lives in coastal areas and Lautenbacher said that means "you have a lot less margin of ability to absorb and to mitigate and to adapt to severe weather events."

"We need to be much better at our ability to predict and tell you what's going to happen," he said. "We need much better preparation along our coastlines, we need much better building codes, flood insurance, all of the economic issues."

Lautenbacher's comments come ahead of the Atlantic hurricane season that begins in June, with millions of people in coastal areas wondering what the storm season will be like.

While 2005 was one of the worst storm years on record, with such massive hurricanes as Katrina and Rita, last year was mild by comparison.

Lautenbacher declined to make a prediction for this year, saying only that the National Hurricane Center will issue a forecast in May.

However, on Tuesday his agency noted that La Nina conditions appear to be developing in the Pacific Ocean. La Nina is a cooling of the sea along with changes in winds and air pressure that can affect weather worldwide. Typically in La Nina years there are fewer storms in the Pacific and more in the Atlantic.

He said research is continuing in a variety of weather and climate areas.

"We need better environmental forecasts," Lautenbacher said. "That goes all the way from water to drought to air quality to greenhouse gases ... all of the earth systems that we depend on for life."

And that includes climate change, he added.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month reported that the world is indeed warming and it is most likely because of human activities.

"I agree with the IPCC report," Lautenbacher said. "I know of no reason not to take the IPCC report seriously."

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