Rapid changes in Helheim Glacier and other Greenland outlet glaciers since 2000 are well-known, but knowledge on earlier decades is fragmentary. Here we exploit the satellite image archives to produce and analyze a monthly-to-seasonal record of Helheim Glacier front position, 1980–2011. Statistical analysis identifies decadal periods with abrupt changes in variability and mean. The record also reveals evidence of volatile advance/retreat behavior in the 1980s. In one of several cases of large-amplitude subannual changes, the glacier front ‘surged’ forward in 1984/85, advancing ~6 km within a few months – surpassing its Little Ice Age maximum position – and afterward retreated ~5 km within a few weeks. These findings challenge the prevailing view of front position stability in the decades before the multi-year retreat in the early 2000s. Cold conditions including rigid ice mélange appear to be a factor in the high-amplitude seasonal advances in the 1980s. However the magnitude and abruptness of the changes in the record cannot be explained solely as a climatic response, such that glacio-dynamics must be invoked. Further, the volatile advance/retreat behavior in the cold 1980s resulted in increased dynamic ice loss, complicating the interpretation of increased calving activity as a response to warming.