The world's ocean and land ecosystems act as sinks for anthropogenic CO2, and over the last half century their combined sink strength grew steadily with increasing CO2 emissions. Recent analyses of the global carbon budget, however, have uncovered an abrupt, substantial (∼ 1 PgC yr-1) and sustained increase in the land sink in the late 1980s whose origin remains unclear. In the absence of this prominent shift in the land sink, increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations since the late 1980s would have been ∼ 30 \% larger than observed (or ∼ 12 ppm above current levels). Global data analyses are limited in regards to attributing causes to changes in the land sink because different regions are likely responding to different drivers. Here, we address this challenge by using terrestrial biosphere models constrained by observations to determine if there is independent evidence for the abrupt strengthening of the land sink. We find that net primary production significantly increased in the late 1980s (more so than heterotrophic respiration), consistent with the inferred increase in the global land sink, and that large-scale climate anomalies are responsible for this shift. We identify two key regions in which climatic constraints on plant growth have eased: northern Eurasia experienced warming, and northern Africa received increased precipitation. Whether these changes in continental climates are connected is uncertain, but North Atlantic climate variability is important. Our findings suggest that improved understanding of climate variability in the North Atlantic may be essential for more credible projections of the land sink under climate change. © 2016 Author(s).