The drainage systems of polythermal glaciers play an important role in high-latitude hydrology, and are determinants of ice flow rate. Flow-recession analysis and linear-reservoir simulation of runoff time series are here used to evaluate seasonal and inter-annual variability in the drainage system of the polythermal Finsterwalderbreen, Svalbard, in 1999 and 2000. Linear-flow recessions are pervasive, with mean coefficients of a fast reservoir varying from 16 (1999) to 41 h (2000), and mean coefficients of an intermittent, slow reservoir varying from 54 (1999) to 114 h (2000). Drainage-system efficiency is greater overall in the first of the two seasons, the simplest explanation of which is more rapid depletion of the snow cover. Reservoir coefficients generally decline during each season (at 0.22 h d−1 in 1999 and 0.52 h d−1 in 2000), denoting an increase in drainage efficiency. However, coefficients do not exhibit a consistent relationship with discharge. Finsterwalderbreen therefore appears to behave as an intermediate case between temperate glaciers and other polythermal glaciers with smaller proportions of temperate ice. Linear-reservoir runoff simulations exhibit limited sensitivity to a relatively wide range of reservoir coefficients, although the use of fixed coefficients in a spatially lumped model can generate significant subseasonal error. At Finsterwalderbreen, an ice-marginal channel with the characteristics of a fast reservoir, and a subglacial upwelling with the characteristics of a slow reservoir, both route meltwater to the terminus. This suggests that drainage-system components of significantly contrasting efficiencies can coexist spatially and temporally at polythermal glaciers.