In recent years, phytoplankton phenology has been proposed as an indicator to monitor systematically the state of the pelagic ecosystem and to detect changes triggered by perturbation of the environmental conditions. Here we describe the phenology of phytoplankton growth for the world ocean using remotesensing ocean colour data, and analyse its variability between 1998 and 2007. Generally, the tropics and subtropics present long growing period (≈15–20 weeks) of low amplitude (<0.5 mg Chl m−3), whereas the
high-latitudes show short growing period (<10 weeks) of high amplitude (up to 7 mg Chl m−3). Statistical
analyses suggest a close coupling between the development of the growing period and the seasonal increase in insolation in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean. In the tropics and subtropics, variabilityin light is low, and the growing period is controlled by nutrient supply occurring when mixing increases. Large interannual variability in the duration of the growing period is observed over the decade 1998–2007, with positive anomalies following the major 1997–1998 El Ni˜no-La Ni˜na events, and generally negative
anomalies from 2003 to 2007. Warmer Sea-Surface Temperature (SST) over the duration of the growing period is associated with longer duration at high-latitudes indicating an extension of the growing period over summer months. The opposite is observed in the tropics and subtropics, where the duration is shorter when the SST is warmer, indicating increased stratification. Positive phases of North Atlantic Oscillation and Southern Annular Mode and negative phases of Multivariate El Ni˜no-Southern Oscillation index (El
Ni˜no conditions), associated with enhanced water mixing and nutrients supply, generally sustain longer growth. On the basis of the results, perspectives are drawn on the utility of phenology as an organising principle for the analysis of pelagic ecosystem.