Decadal fluctuations in salinity, nutrients, chlorophyll, a variety of zooplankton taxa, and fish stocks in the Northeast Pacific are often poorly correlated with the most widely-used index of large-scale climate variability in the region - the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). We define a new pattern of climate change, the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO) and show that its variability is significantly correlated with previously unexplained fluctuations of salinity, nutrients and chlorophyll. Fluctuations in the NPGO are driven by regional and basin-scale variations in wind-driven upwelling and horizontal advection – the fundamental processes controlling salinity and nutrient concentrations. Nutrient fluctuations drive concomitant changes in phytoplankton concentrations, and may force similar variability in higher trophic levels. The NPGO thus provides a strong indicator of fluctuations in the mechanisms driving planktonic ecosystem dynamics. The NPGO pattern extends beyond the North Pacific and is part of a global-scale mode of climate variability that is evident in global sea level trends and sea surface temperature. Therefore the amplification of the NPGO variance found in observations and in global warming simulations implies that the NPGO may play an increasingly important role in forcing global-scale decadal changes in marine ecosystems.