A non-linear regression model describing the mass-balance distribution of the whole Vatnajökull ice cap, Iceland, for the years 1992–2000 is presented. All available data from some 40 locations over this 9 year period were used to determine the parameters of the model. The regression model uses six adjustable parameters which all have a clear physical interpretation. They are the slope, direction and the height of the equilibrium-line altitude (ELA) plane, two altitude mass-balance gradients, and a maximum value of the surface mass balance. It is found that the temporal variation of the observed mass-balance distribution can be accurately described through annual shifts of the ELA. Annual shifts in ELA are on the order of 100 m, which is of the same magnitude as the change expected to be caused by the climate variation predicted during the next decades. A slight trend towards a more negative mass balance is detected during this 9 year period.