Situated in an oceanographic transition zone, the Gulf of Maine~Western Scotian Shelf (GOM/WSS) region of the Northwest Atlantic is especially susceptible to changes in the climate system. Recent studies have shown that a coupled slope water system (CSWS) operates in the Northwest Atlantic and responds in a similar manner to climatic forcing over a broad range of time scales. These studies further suggest that it may be possible to associate different modes of the CSWS with different phases of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Results from recent GLOBEC field studies in the Northwest Atlantic provide strong evidence linking physical responses of the CSWS to basin-scale forcing associated with the NAO. By placing these results in the context of time-series data collected from the GOM/WSS region over the past half century, we show that: (i) the region’s shelf ecosystems respond both physically and biologically to modal shifts in the CSWS; (ii) the CSWS mediates the effects on these ecosystems of basin-scale climatic forcing associated with the NAG; and (iii) certain planktonic species can be good indicators of the CSWS’s modal state on interannual to interdecadal time scales.