Subglacial lakes are repositories of ancient climate conditions, provide habitats for life and modulate ice flow, basal hydrology, biogeochemical fluxes and geomorphic activity. In this Review, we construct the first global inventory of subglacial lakes (773 in total), which includes 675 from Antarctica (59 newly identified), 64 from Greenland, 2 beneath the Devon Ice Cap, 6 beneath Iceland’s ice caps and 26 from valley glaciers. This inventory is used to evaluate subglacial lake environments, dynamics and their wider impact on ice flow and sediment transport. The behaviour of these lakes is conditioned by their subglacial setting and the hydrological, dynamic and mass balance regime of the overlying ice mass. Regions where climate warming causes ice surface steepening are predicted to have fewer and smaller lakes, but increased activity with higher discharge drainages of shorter duration. Coupling to surface melt and rainfall inputs will modulate fill–drain cycles and seasonally enhance oxic processes. Higher discharges cause large, transient ice flow accelerations but might result in overall net slowdown owing to the development of efficient subglacial drainage. Subglacial lake research requires new drilling technologies and the integration of geophysics, satellite monitoring and numerical modelling to provide insight into the wider role of subglacial lakes in the changing Earth system.