The mechanisms controlling the spatial distribution and temporal fluctuations of the thermal structure in polythermal glaciers have, to date, been poorly investigated and are not fully understood. We have investigated the sensitivity of the cold surface layer thickness to different forcing parameters and the causes for an observed thinning of the cold surface layer on Storglaciären, northern Sweden, between 1989 and 2001 using a one-dimensional thermomechanical model and measurements of ice surface temperature, vertical velocity and net mass balance. Similarities between the spatial patterns of the cold surface layer, net mass balance and emergence velocity together with modelled high sensitivity to variations in emergence velocities suggest that the net ablation and vertical ice advection are the dominant forcing parameters. Results from transient model experiments suggest that the cold surface layer reaches a new equilibrium after a perturbation in the forcing within a few decades. No significant change in ice flow or mass balance has been observed at Storglaciären in recent decades. Instead, an increase of 1°C in winter air temperature since the mid-1980s is probably the cause of the observed thinning of the cold surface layer. Increased winter temperatures at the ice surface result in a reduced formation rate of cold ice at the base of the cold surface layer and lead to a larger imbalance between net loss of ice at the surface and freezing of temperate ice at the cold–temperate transition surface. Model results indicate that the cold surface layer is more sensitive to changes in ice surface temperature in areas with lower emergence velocity, which explains the observed complex thinning pattern of the cold surface layer.