Climate variables that control the annual cycle of the surface energy and mass balance on Zhadang glacier in the central Tibetan Plateau were examined over a 2 year period using a physically based energy-balance model forced by routine meteorological data. The modelled results agree with measured values of albedo, incoming longwave radiation, surface temperature and surface level of the glacier. For the whole observation period, the radiation component dominated (82%) the total surface energy heat fluxes. This was followed by turbulent sensible (10%) and latent heat (6%) fluxes. Subsurface heat flux represented a very minor proportion (2%) of the total heat flux. The sensitivity of specific mass balance was examined by perturbations of temperature (±1 K), relative humidity (±20%) and precipitation (±20%). The results indicate that the specific mass balance is more sensitive to changes in precipitation than to other variables. The main seasonal variations in the energy balance were in the two radiation components (net shortwave radiation and net longwave radiation) and these controlled whether surface melting occurred. A dramatic difference in summer mass balance between 2010 and 2011 indicates that the glacier surface mass balance was closely related to precipitation seasonality and form (proportion of snowfall and rainfall).