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We have applied an inverse model to 20 years of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements to infer yearly changes in the regional carbon balance of oceans and continents. The model indicates that global terrestrial carbon fluxes were approximately twice as variable as ocean fluxes between 1980 and 1998. Tropical land ecosystems contributed most of the interannual changes in Earth's carbon balance over the 1980s, whereas northern mid- and high-latitude land ecosystems dominated from 1990 to 1995. Strongly enhanced uptake of carbon was found over North America during the 1992–1993 period compared to 1989–1990.