Iceberg calving is a major contributor to Greenland’s ice mass loss. Pro-glacial mélange (a mixture of sea ice, icebergs, and snow) may be tightly packed in the long, narrow fjords that front many marine-terminating glaciers and can reduce calving by buttressing. However, data limitations have hampered a quantitative understanding. We develop a new radar-based approach to estimate time-varying elevations near the mélange-glacier interface, generating a factor of three or more improvement in elevation precision. We apply the technique to Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland’s major outlet glacier. Over a one-month period in early summer 2016, the glacier experienced essentially no calving, and was buttressed by an unusually thick mélange wedge that increased in thickness towards the glacier front. The extent and thickness of the wedge gradually decreased, with large-scale calving starting once the mélange mass within 7 km of the glacier front had decreased by >40%.