Polar lakes respond quickly to climate-induced environmental changes. We studied the chemical limnological variability in 127 lakes and ponds from eight ice-free regions along the East Antarctic coastline, and compared repeat specific conductance measurements from lakes in the Larsemann Hills and Skarvsnes covering the periods 1987–2009 and 1997–2008, respectively. Specific conductance, the concentration of the major ions, pH and the concentration of the major nutrients underlie the variation in limnology between and within the regions. This limnological variability is probably related to differences in the time of deglaciation, lake origin and evolution, geology and geomorphology of the lake basins and their catchment areas, sub-regional climate patterns, the distance of the lakes and the lake districts to the ice sheet and the Southern Ocean, and the presence of particular biota in the lakes and their catchment areas. In regions where repeat surveys were available, inter-annual and inter-decadal variability in specific conductance was relatively large and most pronounced in the non-dilute lakes with a low lake depth to surface area ratio. We conclude that long-term specific conductance measurements in these lakes are complementary to snow accumulation data from ice cores, inexpensive, easy to obtain, and should thus be part of long-term limnological and biological monitoring programmes.