Using a combination of satellite sensors, field measurements and satellite-uplinked in situ observing stations, we examine the evolution of several large icebergs drifting east of the Antarctic Peninsula towards South Georgia Island. Three styles of calving are observed during drift: ‘rift calvings’, ‘edge wasting’ and ‘rapid disintegration’. Rift calvings exploit large pre-existing fractures generated in the shelf environment and can occur at any stage of drift. Edge wasting is calving of the iceberg perimeter by numerous small edge-parallel, sliver-shaped icebergs, preserving the general shape of the main iceberg as it shrinks. This process is observed only in areas north of the sea-ice edge. Rapid disintegration, where numerous small calvings occur in rapid succession, is consistently associated with indications of surface melt saturation (surface lakes, firn-pit ponding). Freeboard measurements by ICESat indicate substantial increases in ice-thinning rates north of the sea-ice edge (from <10 m a−1 to >30 m a−1), but surface densification is shown to be an important correction (>2 m freeboard loss before the firn saturates). Edge wasting of icebergs in ‘warm’ surface water (sea-ice-free, >−1.8°C) implies a mechanism based on waterline erosion. Rapid disintegration (‘Larsen B-style’ break-up) is likely due to the effects of surface or saturated-firn water acting on pre-existing crevasses, or on wave- or tidally induced fractures. Changes in microwave backscatter of iceberg firn as icebergs drift into warmer climate and experience increased surface melt suggest a means of predicting when floating ice plates are evolving towards disintegration.