Archaea (archaebacteria) constitute one of the three major evolutionary lineages of life on Earth. Previously these prokaryotes were thought to predominate in only a few unusual and disparate niches, characterized by hypersaline, extremely hot, or strictly anoxic conditions. Recently, novel (uncultivated) phylotypes of Archaea have been detected in coastal and subsurface marine waters, but their abundance, distribution, physiology and ecology remain largely undescribed. Here we report exceptionally high archaeal abundance in frigid marine surface waters of Antarctica. Pelagic Archaea constituted up to 34% of the prokaryotic biomass in coastal Antarctic surface waters, and they were also abundant in a variety of other cold, pelagic marine environments. Because they can make up a significant fraction of picoplankton biomass in the vast habitats encompassed by cold and deep marine waters, these pelagic Archaea represent an unexpectedly abundant component of the Earth's biota.