The study of surface features and processes on glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets often requires multitemporal data in order to take account of the dynamic behaviour of snow and ice. Satellite remote sensing provides an important means of acquiring such data sets from polar regions, but the effectiveness of visible (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) wavebands is severely limited by the frequent presence of cloud cover. As well as preventing direct imaging of the surface, cloud cover can be difficult to discriminate from snow and ice because of its similarly high reflectivity. This paper describes a detailed quantitative study of the limitations imposed by cloud cover. The number of potentially useful images which could have been acquired from a study area in Svalbard for the April-September period for 1980–89 is determined. Meteorological data from two stations analyzed over this study period show that fewer than 10% of the available satellite overpasses occurred during cloud-free periods. A cloud cover level of three octas or less, used to define high quality imagery, occurred 29% and 32% of the time at the two stations. Markedly seasonal variations are found which can be explained in terms of the regional climate such that during the months August and September the probability of obtaining a cloud-free Landsat image every year is effectively zero. Analysis of several years of Landsat Quick Look images for other regions of Svalbard confirms these findings. However, a similar series for the Scoresby Sund region of East Greenland shows a much higher percentage of low cloud scenes and no marked seasonality.