A new criterion, based on the shallowest extreme curvature of near surface layer density or temperature profiles, is established for demarking the mixed layer depth, h mix. Using historical global hydrographic profile data, including conductivity-temperature-depth and expendable bathythermograph data obtained during World Ocean Circulation Experiment, its seasonal variability and monthly to interannual anomalies are computed. Unlike the more commonly used Δ criterion, the new criterion is able to deal with both different vertical resolutions of the data set and a large variety of observed stratification profiles. For about two thirds of the profiles our algorithm produces an h mix/c that is more reliable than the one of the Δ criterion. The uncertainty for h mix/c is ±5 m for high- (〈5 m) and ±8 m for low- (〈20 m) resolution profiles. A quality index, QImix, which compares the variance of a profile above h mix to the variance to a depth of 1.5 × h mix, shows that for the 70% of the profile data for which a clearly recognizable well-mixed zone exists near the surface, our criterion identifies the depth of the well-mixed zone in all cases. The standard deviation of anomalous monthly h mix/c is typically 20–70% of the long-term mean h mix/c . In the tropical Pacific the monthly mean anomalies of h mix/c are not well correlated with anomalies of sea surface temperature, which indicate that a variety of turbulent processes, other than surface heat fluxes, are important in the upper ocean there. Comparisons between observed h mix/c and Massachusetts Institute of Techonology/ocean general circulation model/Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean model simulated mixed layer depth indicate that the KPP algorithm captures in general a 30% smaller mixed layer depth than observed.