As the lowest point in the surrounding landscape, lakes act as sensors in the landscape to provide insights into the response of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to climate change. Here a novel suite of climate forcing optical indices (CFOI) from lakes across North America is found to respond to changes in air temperature, precipitation, and solar radiation at timescales ranging from a single storm event to seasonal changes to longer-term interdecadal trends with regression r2 values ranging from 0.73 to 0.89. These indices are based on two optical metrics of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) quality: DOC specific absorbance (a*320) and spectral slope (S275-295), where the ratio a*320 to S275-295 gives a composite climate forcing index. These indices of DOC quality are more responsive to climate forcing than is DOC concentration. A similar relationship between the component indices a*320 and S275-295 is observed across a wide range of lake types. A conceptual model is used to examine the similarities and differences in DOC-related mechanisms and ecological consequences due to increased temperature vs. precipitation. While both warmer and wetter conditions increase thermal stratification, these two types of climate forcing will have opposite effects on water transparency as well as many ecological consequences, including oxygen depletion, the balance between autotrophy and heterotrophy, and depth distributions of phytoplankton and zooplankton.