Often extreme events, more than changes in mean conditions, have the greatest impact on the environment and human well-being. Here we examine changes in the occurrence of extremes in the timing of the annual formation and disappearance of lake ice in the Northern Hemisphere. Both changes in the mean condition and in variability around the mean condition can alter the probability of extreme events. Using long-term ice phenology data covering two periods 1855–6 to 2004–5 and 1905–6 to 2004–5 for a total of 75 lakes, we examined patterns in long-term trends and variability in the context of understanding the occurrence of extreme events. We also examined patterns in trends for a 30-year subset (1975–6 to 2004–5) of the 100-year data set. Trends for ice variables in the recent 30-year period were steeper than those in the 100- and 150-year periods, and trends in the 150-year period were steeper than in the 100-year period. Ranges of rates of change (days per decade) among time periods based on linear regression were 0.3−1.6 later for freeze, 0.5−1.9 earlier for breakup, and 0.7−4.3 shorter for duration. Mostly, standard deviation did not change, or it decreased in the 150-year and 100-year periods. During the recent 50-year period, standard deviation calculated in 10-year windows increased for all ice measures. For the 150-year and 100-year periods changes in the mean ice dates rather than changes in variability most strongly influenced the significant increases in the frequency of extreme lake ice events associated with warmer conditions and decreases in the frequency of extreme events associated with cooler conditions.