Water temperature is critical for the ecology of lakes. However, the ability to predict its spatial and seasonal variation is constrained by the lack of a thermal classification system. Here we define lake thermal regions using objective analysis of seasonal surface temperature dynamics from satellite observations. Nine lake thermal regions are identified that mapped robustly and largely contiguously globally, even for small lakes. The regions differed from other global patterns, and so provide unique information. Using a lake model forced by 21st century climate projections, we found that 12%, 27% and 66% of lakes will change to a lower latitude thermal region by 2080–2099 for low, medium and high greenhouse gas concentration trajectories (Representative Concentration Pathways 2.6, 6.0 and 8.5) respectively. Under the worst-case scenario, a 79% reduction in the number of lakes in the northernmost thermal region is projected. This thermal region framework can facilitate the global scaling of lake-research.