1. Temperature is a major driver of ecological processes in stream ecosystems, yet the dynamics of thermal regimes remain poorly described. Most work has focused on relatively simple descriptors that fail to capture the full range of conditions that characterise thermal regimes of streams across seasons or throughout the year.
2. To more completely describe thermal regimes, we developed several descriptors of magnitude, variability, frequency, duration and timing of thermal events throughout a year. We evaluated how these descriptors change over time using long-term (1979–2009), continuous temperature data from five relatively undisturbed cold-water streams in western Oregon, U.S.A. In addition to trends for each descriptor, we evaluated similarities among them, as well as patterns of spatial coherence, and temporal synchrony.
3. Using different groups of descriptors, we were able to more fully capture distinct aspects of the full range of variability in thermal regimes across space and time. A subset of descriptors showed both higher coherence and synchrony and, thus, an appropriate level of responsiveness to examine evidence of regional climatic influences on thermal regimes. Most notably, daily minimum values during winter–spring were the most responsive descriptors to potential climatic influences.
4. Overall, thermal regimes in streams we studied showed high frequency and low variability of cold temperatures during the cold-water period in winter and spring, and high frequency and high variability of warm temperatures during the warm-water period in summer and autumn. The cold and warm periods differed in the distribution of events with a higher frequency and longer duration of warm events in summer than cold events in winter. The cold period exhibited lower variability in the duration of events, but showed more variability in timing.
5. In conclusion, our results highlight the importance of a year-round perspective in identifying the most responsive characteristics or descriptors of thermal regimes in streams. The descriptors we provide herein can be applied across hydro-ecological regions to evaluate spatial and temporal patterns in thermal regimes. Evaluation of coherence and synchrony of different components of thermal regimes can facilitate identification of impacts of regional climate variability or local human or natural influences.