Pan-Arctic rivers strongly affect the Arctic Ocean and their vast lake-rich deltas. Their discharges may be increasing because of an intensifying hydrological cycle driven by warming climate. We show that a previously unexplained trend toward earlier ice breakup in the Mackenzie River Delta is little affected by winter warming during the period of river-ice growth and is unaffected by river discharge, but unexpectedly is strongly related to local spring warming during the period of river-ice melt. These results are statistically linked to declining winter snowfall that was not expected because of an intensifying Arctic hydrological cycle. Earlier ice breakup is expected to cause declining water level peaks that will reduce off-channel flows through the lake-rich delta before river waters enter the ocean. Thus, local spring warming with unexpected snowfall declines, rather than warmer winters, can drive earlier ice breakup in large Arctic rivers and biogeochemical changes in their river-ocean interface.