The global land and ocean carbon sinks have increased proportionally with increasing carbon dioxide emissions during the past decades 1 . It is thought that Northern Hemisphere lands make a dominant contribution to the global land carbon sink 2–7 ; however, the long-term trend of the northern land sink remains uncertain. Here, using measurements of the interhemispheric gradient of atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1958 to 2016, we show that the northern land sink remained stable between the 1960s and the late 1980s, then increased by 0.5 ± 0.4 petagrams of carbon per year during the 1990s and by 0.6 ± 0.5 petagrams of carbon per year during the 2000s. The increase of the northern land sink in the 1990s accounts for 65% of the increase in the global land carbon flux during that period. The subsequent increase in the 2000s is larger than the increase in the global land carbon flux, suggesting a coincident decrease of carbon uptake in the Southern Hemisphere. Comparison of our findings with the simulations of an ensemble of terrestrial carbon models 5,8 over the same period suggests that the decadal change in the northern land sink between the 1960s and the 1990s can be explained by a combination of increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, climate variability and changes in land cover. However, the increase during the 2000s is underestimated by all models, which suggests the need for improved consideration of changes in drivers such as nitrogen deposition, diffuse light and land-use change. Overall, our findings underscore the importance of Northern Hemispheric land as a carbon sink.