An accurate approach is needed for monitoring, quantifying and understanding surface water variability due to climate change. Separating inter- and intra-annual variances from longer-term shifts in surface water extents due to contemporary climate warming requires repeat measurements spanning a several-decade period. Here, we show that trends developed from multi-date measurements of the extents of more than 15,000 water bodies in central Alaska using Landsat Multispectral Scanner (MSS), Thematic Mapper (TM) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) data (1979–2009) were highly influenced by the quantity and timing of the data. Over the 30-year period from 1979 to 2009, the study area had a net decrease (p < 0.05) in the extents of 3.4% of water bodies whereas 86% of water bodies exhibited no significant change. The Landsat-derived dataset provides an opportunity for additional research assessing the drivers of lake and wetland change in this region.