Several years of continuous physical and biological anomalies have been affecting the Bering Sea shelf ecosystem starting from 1997. Such anomalies reached their peak in a striking visual phenomenon: the first appearance in the area of bright waters caused by massive blooms of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi (E huxleyi). This study is intended to provide an insight into the mechanisms of phytoplankton succession in the south-eastern part of the shelf during such years and addresses the causes of E. huxleyi success by means of a 2-layer ecosystem model, field data and satellite-derived information. A number of potential hypotheses are delineated based on observations conducted in the area and on previous knowledge of E huxleyi general ecology. Some of these hypotheses are then considered as causative factors and explored with the model. The unusual climatic conditions of 1997 resulted most notably in a particularly shallow mixed layer depth and high sea surface temperature (about 4degreesC above climatological mean). Despite the fact that the model could not reproduce for E huxleyi a clear non-bloom to bloom transition (pre- vs. post-1997), several tests suggest that this species was favoured by the shallow mixed layer depth in conjunction with a lack of photoinhibition. A top-down control by microzooplankton selectively grazing phytoplankton other than E huxleyi appears to be responsible for the long persistence of the blooms. Interestingly, observations reveal that the high N:P ratio hypothesis, regarded as crucial in the formation of blooms of this species in previous studies, does not hold on the Bering Sea shelf. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.