Disentangling the roles of the external environment and internal biotic drivers of plant population dynamics is challenging due to the absence of relevant physiological and abundance information over appropriate space and time scales. Remote observations of giant kelp biomass and photosynthetic pigment concentrations are used to show that spatiotemporal patterns of physiological condition, and thus growth and production, are regulated by different processes depending on the scale of observation. Nutrient supply was linked to regional scale (>1 km) physiological condition dynamics, and kelp forest stands were more persistent where nutrient levels were consistently high. However, on local scales (<1 km), internal senescence processes related to canopy age demographics determined patterns of biomass loss across individual kelp forests despite uniform nutrient conditions. Repeat measurements of physiology over continuous spatial fields can provide insights into complex dynamics that are unexplained by the environmental drivers thought to regulate abundance. Emerging remote sensing technologies that provide simultaneous estimates of abundance and physiology can quantify the roles of environmental change and demographics governing plant population dynamics for a wide range of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.