Spatial and temporal variability in regimes of coastal upwelling may have profound effects on the distribution and local dynamics of coastal marine populations and entire communities. Currently available mesoscale indices for upwelling intensity lack the resolution needed to characterize and compare inner-shelf upwelling regimes at small spatial scales (1-10's km), which is often required to test relevant hypotheses in ecology, conservation, and management. We present local, quantitative indices of thermal variability, whose pattern across sites is largely driven by variation in coastal upwelling intensity at scales of few kilometers. Index calculations were based on daily records of in situ Sea Surface Temperature [SST], gathered at 30 sites along the Oregon-California coast, and at 25 sites along the coast of northern and central Chile. Several univariate metrics were calculated using daily series of temperature anomalies, and combined to produce a multivariate ordination of sites (Multivariate Upwelling Zone Index of Cooling, MUZIC) that allowed us to compare sites across regions. Multivariate indices calculated for 13 central Chile sites explained 52% and 50% of the among-site variance in corticated algal biomass and growth rate, respectively. Upwelling-induced variability at the scales documented here can have significant consequences on the ecology of coastal ecosystems. The basic data requirements (i.e. SST time series) and the simplicity of calculation make these indices a useful tool to apply at a large number of sites around the world, and to examine the generality of community- and population-level responses to physical forcing.