The factors controlling the distribution of phytoplankton stocks, species composition, and their physiological status in the Southern Ocean are reviewed. In the last decade, the key data sources have been observational and experimental. Together, they provide a framework to understand the complex temporal and spatial patterns of environmental control within the distinct basins and ecological provinces. High resolution remotely sensed observational data have overcome the issue of geographical remoteness. Furthermore, by exploiting seasonal and spatial differences in algal distributions, observational data have enabled the cross-correlation of such trends with patterns in other environmental properties. Perturbation experiments have offered a mechanistic understanding to help interpret observational data by altering environmental properties under carefully controlled conditions. A consistent set of trends, on the modes of environmental control of phytoplankton processes, is now emerging across the different basins and provinces. The key determinants are light, iron, and silicic acid supply (top-down control was not considered). However, their interplay in time and space (i.e. simultaneous limitation of phytoplankton processes) is less clear, requires further study, and is discussed. Future challenges include the need to understand better the mode(s) of environmental control on key algal functional groups via more taxon- and species-specific studies. The initiation of more time-series moorings with “smart” bio-optical and sampling sensors are needed to define the seasonal distributions of algal taxa. Moreover, new perturbation experiments are required to investigate the influence on phytoplankton processes of projected climate-mediated alteration of mixed layer depth and nutrient supply as widely predicted by modelers.