Thermal and optical remote sensing data were used to investigate the spatial and temporal distribution of sea surface temperature (SST) and of suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the southern North Sea. Monthly SST composites showed pronounced seasonal warming of the southern North Sea and delineated the English coastal and continental coastal waters. The East-Anglia Plume is the dominant feature of the English coastal waters in the winter and autumn SPM composites, and the Rhine region of freshwater influence (ROFI), including the Flemish Banks, is the dominant feature of the continental waters. These mesoscale spatial structures are also influenced by the evolution of fronts, such as the seasonal front separating well-mixed water in the southern Bight, from the seasonally stratified central North Sea waters. A harmonic analysis of the SST and SPM images showed pronounced seasonal variability, as well as spring-neap variations in the level of tidal mixing in the East Anglia Plume, the Rhine ROFI and central North Sea. The harmonic analysis indicates the important role played by the local meteorology and tides in governing the SST and near-surface SPM concentrations in the southern North Sea. In the summer, thermal stratification affects the visibility of SPM to satellite sensors in the waters to the north of the Flamborough and Frisian Fronts. Haline stratification plays an important role in the visibility of SPM in the Rhine ROFI throughout the year. When stratified, both regions typically exhibit low surface SPM values. A numerical model study, together with the harmonic analysis, highlights the importance of tides and waves in controlling the stratification in the southern North Sea and hence the visibility of SPM. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.