Many remote sensing techniques and passive sensors have been developed to measure global aerosol properties. While instantaneous comparisons between pixel-level data often reveal quantitative differences, here we use Empirical Orthogonal Function (EOF) analysis, also known as Principal Component Analysis, to demonstrate that satellite-derived aerosol optical depth (AOD) data sets exhibit essentially the same spatial and temporal variability and are thus suitable for large-scale studies. Analysis results show that the first four EOF modes of AOD account for the bulk of the variance and agree well across the four data sets used in this study (i.e., Aqua MODIS, Terra MODIS, MISR, and SeaWiFS). Only SeaWiFS data over land have slightly different EOF patterns. Globally, the first two EOF modes show annual cycles and are mainly related to Sahara dust in the northern hemisphere and biomass burning in the southern hemisphere, respectively. After removing the mean seasonal cycle from the data, major aerosol sources, including biomass burning in South America and dust in West Africa, are revealed in the dominant modes due to the different interannual variability of aerosol emissions. The enhancement of biomass burning associated with El Niño over Indonesia and central South America is also captured with the EOF technique.