The ocean is the largest sink for anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2), having absorbed roughly 40 per cent of CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial era. Recent data show that oceanic CO2 uptake rates have been growing over the past decade, reversing a trend of stagnant or declining carbon uptake during the 1990s. Here we show that ocean circulation variability is the primary driver of these changes in oceanic CO2 uptake over the past several decades.