The Greenland Ice Sheet’s contribution to global sea-level rise is accelerating1 due to increased melting of its bare-ice ablation zone2–6, but there is growing evidence that climate models overestimate runoff from this critical area of the ice sheet7–12. Current climate models assume all bare ice runoff escapes to the ocean, unlike snow covered areas where some fraction of runoff is retained and/or refrozen in porous firn13–15. Here we use in situ measurements and numerical modeling to reveal extensive retention and refreezing of liquid meltwater in bare glacial ice, explaining chronic runoff overestimation by climate models. From 2009–2018, refreezing of liquid meltwater in bare, porous glacial ice reduced meltwater runoff by 11–23 Gt a-1 in southwest Greenland alone, equivalent to 10–20% of annual meltwater production. This mass retention is commensurate with current estimates of climate model ice sheet meltwater runoff uncertainty, and may represent an overlooked buffer on projected runoff increases for the coming century16. Inclusion of bare-ice retention and refreezing processes in climate models therefore has immediate potential to improve forecasts of ice sheet runoff and its contribution to global sea-level rise.