Satellite measurements allow global assessments of phytoplankton concentrations and, from observed temporal changes in biomass, direct access to net biomass accumulation rates (r). For the subarctic Atlantic basin, analysis of annual cycles in r reveals that initiation of the annual blooming phase does not occur in spring after stratification surpasses a critical threshold but rather occurs in early winter when growth conditions for phytoplankton are deteriorating. This finding has been confirmed with in situ profiling float data. The objective of the current study was to test whether satellite-based annual cycles in r are reproduced by the Biogeochemical Element Cycling–Community Climate System Model and, if so, to use the additional ecosystem properties resolved by the model to better understand factors controlling phytoplankton blooms. We find that the model gives a similar early onset time for the blooming phase, that this initiation is largely due to the physical disruption of phytoplankton-grazer interactions during mixed layer deepening, and that parallel increases in phytoplankton-specific division and loss rates during spring maintain the subtle disruption in food web equilibrium that ultimately yields the spring bloom climax. The link between winter mixing and bloom dynamics is illustrated by contrasting annual plankton cycles between regions with deeper and shallower mixing. We show that maximum water column inventories of phytoplankton vary in proportion to maximum winter mixing depth, implying that future reductions in winter mixing may dampen plankton cycles in the subarctic Atlantic. We propose that ecosystem disturbance-recovery sequences are a unifying property of global ocean plankton blooms.