The basal regions of continental ice sheets are gaps in our current understanding of the Earth's biosphere and biogeochemical cycles. We draw on existing and new chemical data sets for subglacial meltwaters to provide the first comprehensive assessment of sub-ice sheet biogeochemical weathering. We show that size of the ice mass is a critical control on the balance of chemical weathering processes and that microbial activity is ubiquitous in driving dissolution. Carbonate dissolution fueled by sulfide oxidation and microbial CO2 dominate beneath small valley glaciers. Prolonged meltwater residence times and greater isolation characteristic of ice sheets lead to the development of anoxia and enhanced silicate dissolution due to calcite saturation. We show that sub-ice sheet environments are highly geochemically reactive and should be considered in regional and global solute budgets. For example, calculated solute fluxes from Antarctica (72–130 t yr−1) are the same order of magnitude as those from some of the world's largest rivers and rates of chemical weathering (10–17 t km−2 yr−1) are high for the annual specific discharge (2.3–4.1 × 10−3 m). Our model of chemical weathering dynamics provides important information on subglacial biodiversity and global biogeochemical cycles and may be used to design strategies for the first sampling of Antarctic Subglacial Lakes and other sub-ice sheet environments for the next decade.