Recent years have seen a plethora of studies reporting that ‘regime shifts’ have occurred in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during the last century. In many cases, the criteria used to distinguish a regime shift have not been explicitly stated. In other cases, a formal definition has been proposed and the data set assessed against it. Developing a universal quantitative definition for identifying and distinguishing between purported climatic and ecological regime shifts has proved problematic as many authors have developed criteria that seem unique to the system under study. Consequently, they throw little light on the drivers of ecological regime shifts. Criteria used to define regime shifts are reviewed and on the basis of evidence from purported regime shifts, common characteristics in the speed and amplitude of the changes and the duration of quasi-stable states are used to propose a more clearly defined set of criteria for defining climatic and ecological regime shifts. Causal drivers of regime shifts are explored using correlation analysis. Limitations of these methods are discussed.