The role of melting at the base of temperate tidewater glaciers is rarely discussed, and its potential importance for total glacier mass balance and subglacial dynamics is often overlooked. We use Columbia Glacier, Alaska, USA, as an example of a temperate tidewater glacier to estimate the spatial distribution of basal melt due to friction both before and during the glacier’s well-documented retreat since the early 1980s. Published data on glacier surface and bed profiles, ice-flow velocities and surface melt were collated and used as input data for a two-dimensional basal melt model. We estimate that before the retreat of Columbia Glacier (pre-1980s), mean basal melt amounted to 61 mm a–1, increasing to 129 mma–1 during retreat (post-1980s). According to our calculations, basal melt accounts for 3% and 5% of total glacier melt for the pre-retreat and syn-retreat (i.e. during retreat) glacier profiles, respectively. These calculations of basal melt are an order of magnitude greater than those typically reported in polar glacier settings. Basal melting in temperate tidewater settings may be a non-negligible process affecting glacier mass balance and subglacial dynamics.