Massive waves break in Ocean City, Md., as Hurricane Sandy approaches. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Last week, we examined North Carolina's efforts to plan for sea-level rise. A few weeks ago, we did the same in Norfolk, Va., where the tides are rising faster than anywhere on the East Coast. On Monday, we got a glimpse into how federal Washington is approaching the issue via a conference on climate change at Old Dominion University.

Organizers said the event in Norfolk was probably the first in the nation to bring together Republican and Democratic members of Congress to discuss the topic, which tends to get politically touchy the minute anybody veers toward the causes of global warming -- specifically whether humans and their carbon emissions play a starring role.

In the interest of bipartisan bonhomie, the event hosted by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) mostly steered clear of that subject. But under questioning from Kaine and three members of the state's congressional delegation -- Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott and Republican Reps. Scott Rigell and Rob Wittman -- two panels of experts spent quite a lot of time acknowledging the alarming fact of sea-level rise, defining the problem and discussing what to do about it.

Indeed, Rigell asked the first panel (which included various White House, Pentagon and federal agency officials) what forecast the Navy is using in Norfolk, home to the largest naval base on the globe and the Navy's most vulnerable facility. The answer? There is no forecast for sea-level rise, other than the rough estimate employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which ranges from about a foot over the coming century (if carbon emissions were brought under control tomorrow) to as much as two meters.

Better forecasts are in the works, said Rear Adm. Kevin R. Slates, chief of the Navy's energy and environmental readiness division. For example, a multitude of federal agencies are putting together predictions for the North Atlantic Coast for 2018, 2068, 2100 and 2118. The report, called the North Atlantic Comprehensive Study, arose as part of the federal response to Hurricane Sandy. It is due to be delivered to Congress in January.

While the study will provide a specific estimate for sea-level rise as far south as Virginia, it will not look at storm frequency and severity, landfall trends and other climate matters, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site, because the "the state of science precludes detailed evaluations."

In the meantime, a top Pentagon official on the panel offered what he called a common-sense approach to planning amid the uncertainty: Do what North Carolina did and just look at the forecast for 30 years out. Because through about 2050, he said, there's not a lot of disagreement among scientists about how much the waters will rise.

“The forecast for 30 years out is about a foot. So if you’re building buildings, you’re thinking of that near-term thing,” said  John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary for installations and environment for the Department of Defense. Of course, “if you want your building to last longer than 30 years,” Conger added, then you need to look at the longer-term forecasts.

Such forecasts promise to become increasingly important in the distribution of federal funds. Conger, who is also in charge of base closings, noted that sea-level rise -- and other effects of climate change -- are already affecting mission readiness. As the Pentagon considers whether to close facilities, he said, "there are a couple of bases that run out of water in the West in 20 years. What do you do when a base runs out of water? Truck it in like you do in Afghanistan?"

And Kaine raised the prospect of requiring recipients of federal highway funds to take climate change into account in their planning.

"Does it make you nervous if we put that in as a factor?" Kaine asked the second panel, composed mainly of state and local officials. "We want to be honest and not sugar-coat the challenge, but we don’t want to create a sense of panic."