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 Delta 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 Delta 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, QI(mix), which compares the variance of a profile above h(mix) to the variance to a depth of 1.5 x 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.