Doug George hops away from an incoming wave, and points up.

"Dry sand, this is a good thing," he said.

I look up to where he’s pointing, and what I see there looming above my head frightens me. It’s the jagged corners of apartment buildings. They’re jutting out from the top of a cliff. At the bottom below, directly in front of us, is rubble.

"That’s part of the apartment building, that’s part of the foundation."

As glaciers melt and seas rise, the oceans are claiming land that humans thought they dominated. In Massachusetts, defiant coastal homeowners rebuild homes again and again. But in other places, people are taking action: The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is considering abandoning launch sites on Cape Canaveral because coastlines have eroded so much. And in California, the process of “managed retreat” is painfully underway.

In the Edgemar neighborhood of Pacifica, just west of San Francisco, George, a geological oceanographer who’s worked for state and federal agencies on coastal projects in the area, and who's also lived in the northeast, points to the cliff face, a patchwork of plastic sheets, metal nails, and cement — remnants of previous attempts to protect the cliffs and delay erosion.

"That right there, that balcony?" he said. "That’s going to go. Next storm could wipe those out."

We climb up to the top of the cliff to look at the front of the teetering apartment buildings. There are 8-by-10 sheets of paper stapled to the front doors here that state the obvious.

"Yeah," George said. "Unsafe for human occupancy."

California is dealing now with the issues scientists say New England will face more often in the next century, as glaciers melt, oceans rise, and the seas claim more coastline. When things turn stormy, the Northeast already experiences ocean erosion. But so far it’s been more destructive in California where the coastline is sandier and the waves are more powerful. All the damage has taught California officials a valuable lesson: It’s easier — and cheaper — to prepare rather than react to the incoming seas.

"This is an example of when managed retreat doesn’t happen," George said. "This was chaotic, there are pipes everywhere, this is an extreme response to an extreme event. And managed retreat gives everybody breathing room to think about it slowly and plan for it, instead of 'OK! It’s time to do it!'"

“Managed retreat” is a fancy term for giving up places the ocean is slowly reclaiming. For the most part, we don’t use those words yet in New England. But managed retreat is happening in small ways. Greg Berman, coastal processes specialist at the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension of the Woods Hole Sea Grant program, says some small Massachusetts coastal towns are giving up on parking lots that are often covered by water or destroyed by storms.

“It was becoming more and more expensive to maintain that area for the number of spots and amount of money it was costing them," Berman said. "It wasn’t in the town's interest to maintain them anymore."

But many private coastline owners oppose giving up properties that, in some cases, have been in families for generations. They’ve rebuilt homes multiple times with insurance payouts from taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance. In 2012, lawmakers changed that program, and last year insurance rates for homeowners on the Massachusetts coastline skyrocketed. Berman says the effect was immediate.

“You had dramatic increases of many times of orders of magnitude what the insurance used to be," he said. "While it may actually be closer to the risk, it was just having a devastating effect on the potential real estate and making homes unsellable."

Even in the face of rising insurance rates and growing erosion threats, New Englanders are not giving up. Instead, they’re looking for new ways to protect properties. For the first time, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering allowing dredging of the ocean floor for sand to replenish beaches.

"Sand nourishment is a way to stall things," Berman said. "It’s a very good option in the short- to mid-term. As you move into the future, sand nourishment is going to get more and more expensive."

Massachusetts banned ocean sand dredging until now because of concerns from the fishing industry and others.

[Massachusetts] has some huge financial issues to deal with, and whether or not it wants to invest in offshore sand mining, I don't know. Do we fix the T or do we fix an eroding beach?

Jack Clarke stands on a Boston Harbor pier, near his office at the Mass Audobon Society. He’s on the state’s Coastal Erosion and Sand Mining commissions.

"It’s a huge shift," Clarke said. "We have mapped a couple of possible pilot areas where we could get sand. But it’s just in the preliminary stage. And if there was any mining of sand, of shore, we would definitely need to work with the fishing community."

Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for the Massachusetts Coastal Erosion Commission, says they’re crafting a plan to replenish, for now, public beaches with dredged sand from the ocean. The state’s residents still have to decide if beach replenishment is a priority.

“The state has some huge financial issues to deal with, and whether or not it wants to invest in offshore sand mining, I don’t know," he said. "Do we fix the [MBTA] or do we fix an eroding beach?"

Even if we do replenish beaches, Clarke points out that the new sand may just wash away with the next big storm. Eventually, he says, Massachusetts will have to move back from the coast, like California. And there might be advantages to doing that sooner rather than later.

"This is probably as close to New England as you can get in some ways," George said. "I mean, you’ve got all of these houses kind of tumbling down in a really nice cascading way to the coast."

We’re on Pacifica State Beach, a sleepy, rugged curve in the hilly California coastline that’s a favorite for surfers. George says the nearby houses used to get pummeled during storms. Then, 13 years ago, the state decided to retreat from the publicly owned part of the beach, and asked nearby home and business owners to do the same.

"The whole project took out a lot of development that was basically on top of the beach."

Afterward, George says the encroaching waves had somewhere to go. Many homes were saved, along with infrastructure like sewer pipes and water mains.

"So instead of having big crashing waves that just ricochet along this little cove, now you have a beach that takes that energy and spreads it out," he said.

And that idea — of directing the incoming water to save some property — that is at play in Boston, which scientists say is one of the most at-risk cities in the country for flooding as the oceans rise.

"You are talking a third of the city flooding more than once a year, on average, with salt water, which is corrosive," said Julie Wormser, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association.

Wormser and the Boston Harbor Association worked with the city to organize a contest for the best ideas to make way for the encroaching water. Popular suggestions included temporary walls, a system of canals, or slowly removing buildings from areas that’ll be under water and replacing them with parks and sculptures that’ll one day serve as fish habitats.

"So in dry season, it’s gorgeous open space like our Greenway and our Newbury Streets," she said. "During storm times, it channels the water away from people and places that would be harmed."

Another option is retreating up, and allowing first floors of buildings to flood.

"And then everything below is public plazas that can be flooded," she said. "So that is a managed retreat."

The only question is: Will we retreat or wait for the ocean to do it for us?

This story was reported with assistance from Annie Phuong Nguyen.