Quantifying the biogeochemical cycling of carbon in glacial ecosystems is of great significance for regional, and potentially global, carbon flow estimations. The concentration and quality of organic carbon (OC) is an important indicator of biogeochemical and physical processes that prevail in an ice-sheet ecosystem. Here we determine the content and quality of OC in debris from the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) using microscopic, chromatographic, spectrophotometric and high-temperature combustion techniques. The total OC content in the debris increased with distance from the edge of the ice sheet, from virtually zero to >6% dry weight at 50 km inland, and there was a peak in the carbohydrate proportion and the microbial abundance at ∼6km inland. The highest (galactose + mannose)/(arabinose + xylose) ratios, indicating maximum autochthonous microbial production, were found at >10km inland. We propose that three key processes influence the carbon cycling on the GrIS: aeolian input of microbial inoculum and nutrients, in situ biological C transformation and the wash-away of supraglacial debris by meltwaters. We show that all these processes have significant spatial variability. While the total OC content of the debris on the ice sheet is probably controlled by the physical processes of wind transport and wash-away by meltwater, the microbial abundance and the quantity of the labile cell-contained OC within the debris is likely to be driven by the balance between the wash-away and the microbial productivity.