Foraminiferal species abundances are used to estimate seasonal variability of late Quaternary sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. Empirical orthogonal functions analysis of 28 time series isolates two patterns (modes) of variation. The dominant mode 1 reflects seasonal temperature contrast of the South Equatorial Current region 5°–6°C higher at the glacial maximum than at present, probably indicating larger seasonal variations of the southern trade winds. Forcing for this pattern may have come from equatorward compression of glacial climate zones due to high-latitude cooling in both hemispheres and/or suppression of meridional monsoonal circulation via feedback from northern hemisphere ice cover. When compared with CLIMAP estimates of lower seasonal variations of glacial age sea ice fronts in Antarctica, mode 1 suggests decoupling of low- and high- latitude seasonal cycles in the southern hemisphere on a glacial-interglacial scale. Mode 2 variations reflect seasonal contrast in sea surface temperature of 2°–3°C less 9000 to 14,000 years B.P. than at present along the equator and in the eastern subtropical Atlantic, perhaps related to an equatorial position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, weakened trade winds, and/or strengthened monsoonal circulation during deglaciation. Our findings emphasize the need to isolate spatially coherent (and thus dynamically linked) patterns of climate change from a complex record of multiple climatic effects. Only then can effective tests of hypotheses be made with a coupled strategy of data acquisition and climate modeling.