Observation-based reconstructions of sea surface temperature from relatively stable periods in the past, such as the Last Glacial Maximum, represent an important means of constraining climate sensitivity and evaluating model simulations. The first quantitative global reconstruction of sea surface temperatures during the Last Glacial Maximum was developed by the Climate Long-Range Investigation, Mapping and Prediction (CLIMAP) project in the 1970s and 1980s (refs 2, 3). Since that time, several shortcomings of that earlier effort have become apparent. Here we present an updated synthesis of sea surface temperatures during the Last Glacial Maximum, rigorously defined as the period between 23 and 19 thousand years before present, from the Multiproxy Approach for the Reconstruction of the Glacial Ocean Surface (MARGO) project. We integrate microfossil and geochemical reconstructions of surface temperatures and include assessments of the reliability of individual records. Our reconstruction reveals the presence of large longitudinal gradients in sea surface temperature in all of the ocean basins, in contrast to the simulations of the Last Glacial Maximum climate available at present. © 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited.