The northern mid- to high-latitudes have the highest total number and area of lakes on Earth. Lake origins in these regions are diverse, but to a large extent coupled to glacial, permafrost, and peatland histories. The synthesis of 1207 northern lake initiation records presented here provides an analog for rapid landscape-level change in response to climate warming, and its subsequent attenuation by physical and biological feedback mechanisms. Our compilation reveals two peaks in northern lake formation, 13,200 and 10,400 years ago, both following rapid increases in North Atlantic air temperature. Placing our findings within the context of existing paleoenvironmental records, we suggest that solar insolation-driven changes in climate (temperature and water balance) that led to deglaciation and permafrost thaw likely contributed to high rates of northern lake formation during the last Deglacial period. However, further landscape development and stabilization dramatically reduced rates of lake formation beginning ∼10,000 years ago. This suggests that temperature alone may not control future lake development; rather, multiple factors must align to enable a landscape to respond with an increase in lake area. We propose that land surfaces strongly geared toward increased lake formation were highly conditioned by glaciation. Thus, it is unlikely that warming this century will cause lake formation as rapid or as widespread as that during the last Deglacial period.