Water-driven fracture propagation beneath supraglacial lakes rapidly transports large volumes of surface meltwater to the base of the Greenland Ice Sheet1. These drainage events drive transient ice-sheet acceleration1,2,3and establish conduits for additional surface-to-bed meltwater transport for the remainder of the melt season1,4,5,6. Although it is well established that cracks must remain water-filled to propagate to the bed7,8,9, the precise mechanisms that initiate hydro-fracture events beneath lakes are unknown. Here we show that, for a lake on the western Greenland Ice Sheet, drainage events are preceded by a 6–12 hour period of ice-sheet uplift and/or enhanced basal slip. Our observations from a dense Global Positioning System (GPS) network allow us to determine the distribution of meltwater at the ice-sheet bed before, during, and after three rapid drainages in 2011–2013, each of which generates tensile stresses that promote hydro-fracture beneath the lake. We hypothesize that these precursors are associated with the introduction of meltwater to the bed through neighbouring moulin systems (vertical conduits connecting the surface and base of the ice sheet). Our results imply that as lakes form in less crevassed, interior regions of the ice sheet10,11,12,13,14, where water at the bed is currently less pervasive5,14,15,16, the creation of new surface-to-bed conduits caused by lake-draining hydro-fractures may be limited.