Until quite recently, the mass balance (MB) of the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica was poorly known and often treated as a residual in the budget of oceanic mass and sea level change. Recent developments in regional climate modelling and remote sensing, especially altimetry, gravimetry and InSAR feature tracking, have enabled us to specifically resolve the ice sheet mass balance components at a near-annual timescale. The results reveal significant mass losses for both ice sheets, caused by the acceleration of marine-terminating glaciers in southeast, west and northwest Greenland and coastal West Antarctica, and increased run-off in Greenland. At the same time, the data show that interannual variability is very significant, masking the underlying trends. © 2011 The Author(s).