Arctic river basins are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change. However, there is currently limited knowledge of the hydrological processes that govern flow dynamics in Arctic river basins. We address this research gap using natural hydrochemical and isotopic tracers to identify water sources that contributed to runoff in river basins spanning a gradient of glacierization (0–61%) in Svalbard during summer 2010 and 2011. Spatially distinct hydrological processes operating over diurnal, weekly and seasonal timescales were characterized by river hydrochemistry and isotopic composition. Two conceptual water sources (‘meltwater’ and ‘groundwater’) were identified and used as a basis for end-member mixing analyses to assess seasonal and year-to-year variability in water source dynamics. In glacier-fed rivers, meltwater dominated flows at all sites (typically >80%) with the highest contributions observed at the beginning of each study period in early July when snow cover was most extensive. Rivers in non-glacierized basins were sourced initially from snowmelt but became increasingly dependent on groundwater inputs (up to 100% of total flow volume) by late summer. These hydrological changes were attributed to the depletion of snowpacks and enhanced soil water storage capacity as the active layer expanded throughout each melt season. These findings provide insight into the processes that underpin water source dynamics in Arctic river systems and potential future changes in Arctic hydrology that might be expected under a changing climate. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.