Sea ice is one the largest biomes on earth, yet it is poorly described by biogeochemical and climate models. In this paper, published and unpublished data on sympagic (ice-associated) algal biodiversity and productivity have been compiled from more than 300 sea-ice cores and organized into a systematic framework. Significant patterns in microalgal community structure emerged from this framework. Autotrophic flagellates characterize surface communities, interior communities consist of mixed microalgal populations and pennate diatoms dominate bottom communities. There is overlap between landfast and pack-ice communities, which supports the hypothesis that sympagic microalgae originate from the pelagic environment. Distribution in the Arctic is sometimes quite different compared to the Antarctic. This difference may be related to the time of sampling or lack of dedicated studies. Seasonality has a significant impact on species distribution, with a potentially greater role for flagellates and centric diatoms in early spring. The role of sea-ice algae in seeding pelagic blooms remains uncertain. Photosynthesis in sea ice is mainly controlled by environmental factors on a small scale and therefore cannot be linked to specific ice types. Overall, sea-ice communities show a high capacity for photoacclimation but low maximum productivity compared to pelagic phytoplankton. Low carbon assimilation rates probably result from adaptation to extreme conditions of reduced light and temperature in winter. We hypothesize that in the near future, bottom communities will develop earlier in the season and develop more biomass over a shorter period of time as light penetration increases due to the thinning of sea ice. The Arctic is already witnessing changes. The shift forward in time of the algal bloom can result in a mismatch in trophic relations, but the biogeochemical consequences are still hard to predict. With this paper we provide a number of parameters required to improve the reliability of sea-ice biogeochemical models.