The response of the Greenland ice sheet to ongoing climate change remains an area of great uncertainty, with most previous studies having concentrated on the contribution of the atmosphere to the ice mass-balance signature. Here we systematically assess for the first time the influence of oceanographic changes on the ice sheet. The first part of this assessment involves a statistical analysis and interpretation of the relative changes and variations in sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) and air temperatures around Greenland for the period 1870–2007. This analysis is based on HadISST1 and Reynolds OI.v2 SST analyses, in situ SST and deeper ocean temperature series, surface-air-temperature records for key points located around the Greenland coast, and examination of atmospheric pressure and geopotential height from NCEP/NCAR reanalysis. Second, we carried out a novel sensitivity experiment in which SSTs were perturbed as input to a regional climate model, and document the resulting effects on simulated Greenland climate and surface mass balance. We conclude that sea-surface/ocean temperature forcing is not sufficient to strongly influence precipitation/snow accumulation and melt/runoff of the ice sheet. Additional evidence from meteorological reanalysis suggests that high Greenland melt anomalies of summer 2007 are likely to have been primarily forced by anomalous advection of warm air masses over the ice sheet and to have therefore had a more remote atmospheric origin. However, there is a striking correspondence between ocean warming and dramatic accelerations and retreats of key Greenland outlet glaciers in both southeast and southwest Greenland during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.