AbstractMarine net primary production (NPP) is remarkably high given the typical vertical separation of 50–150 m between the depth zones of light and nutrient sufficiency, respectively. Here we present evidence that many autotrophs bridge this gap through downward and upward migration, thereby facilitating biological nutrient pumping and high rates of oceanic NPP. Our model suggests that phytoplankton vertical migration (PVM) fuels up to 40% (>28 tg yr−1 N) of new production and directly contributes 25% of total oceanic NPP (herein estimated at 56 PgC yr−1). Confidence in these estimates is supported by good reproduction of seasonal, vertical and geographic variations in NPP. In contrast to common predictions, a sensitivity study of the PVM model indicates higher NPP under global warming when enhanced stratification reduces physical nutrient transport into the surface ocean. Our findings suggest that PVM is a key mechanism driving marine biogeochemistry and therefore requires consideration in global carbon budgets.