Surging outlet glaciers are important in draining large ice caps, but the mechanisms controlling surge periodicities are poorly known. We investigated a sediment sequence from the glacier-fed Lake Lögurinn in eastern Iceland, and our unique annually resolved data, based on sedimentary varves, imply that Eyjabakkajökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, began surging about 2200 cal a BP (before 1950 AD). Approximately 1700 cal a BP, the glacier started to surge at a uniform 34- to 38-year periodicity that prevailed until the coldest part of the Little Ice Age when the periodicity almost halved to 21–23 years. Since the late 1800 s the surge periodicity of Eyjabakkajökull has returned to a longer period of 35–40 years. We suggest that surge periodicities of Eyjabakkajökull are forced by climatically driven mass balance changes, which may be a common forcing factor for similar surge-type outlet glaciers. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.