Abstract. Fully coupled climate carbon cycle models are sophisticated tools that are used to predict future climate change and its impact on the land and ocean carbon cycles. These models should be able to adequately represent natural variability, requiring model validation by observations. The present study focuses on the ocean carbon cycle component, in particular the spatial and temporal variability in net primary productivity (PP) and export production (EP) of particulate organic carbon (POC). Results from three coupled climate carbon cycle models (IPSL, MPIM, NCAR) are compared with observation-based estimates derived from satellite measurements of ocean colour and results from inverse modelling (data assimilation). Satellite observations of ocean colour have shown that temporal variability of PP on the global scale is largely dominated by the permanently stratified, low-latitude ocean (Behrenfeld et al., 2006) with stronger stratification (higher sea surface temperature; SST) being associated with negative PP anomalies. Results from all three coupled models confirm the role of the low-latitude, permanently stratified ocean for anomalies in globally integrated PP, but only one model (IPSL) also reproduces the inverse relationship between stratification (SST) and PP. An adequate representation of iron and macronutrient co-limitation of phytoplankton growth in the tropical ocean has shown to be the crucial mechanism determining the capability of the models to reproduce observed interactions between climate and PP.