In recent years, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has been increasingly used for characterization of subglacial and englacial environments at polythermal glaciers. The geophysical method is able to exploit the dielectric difference between water, air, sediment and ice, allowing delineation of subsurface hydrological, thermal and structural conditions. More recent GPR research has endeavoured to examine temporal change in glaciers, in particular the distribution of the cold ice zone at polythermal glaciers. However, the exact nature of temporal change that can be identified using GPR has not been fully examined. This research presents the results of three GPR surveys conducted over the course of a summer ablation season at a polythermal glacier in the Canadian Arctic. A total of approximately 30 km of GPR profiles were collected in 2002 repeatedly covering the lower 2 km of Stagnation Glacier, Bylot Island (72°58′ N 78°22′ W). Comparison between profiles indicated changes in the radar signature, including increased noise, appearance and disappearance of englacial reflections, and signal attenuation in the latter survey. Further, an area of chaotic returns in up-glacier locations, which was interpreted to be a wet temperate ice zone, showed marked recession over the course of the ablation season. Combining all the temporal changes that were detected by GPR, results indicate that a polythermal glacier may exhibit strongly seasonal changes in hydrological and thermal characteristics throughout the ice body, including the drainage of 17 000 m3 of temporarily stored intra-glacial meltwater. It is also proposed that the liquid water content in the temperate ice zone of polythermal glaciers can be described as a fraction of a specific retention capacity. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.