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The carbon balance of tropical ecosystems remains uncertain, with top-down atmospheric studies suggesting an overall sink and bottom-up ecological approaches indicating a modest net source. Here we use 12 years (2003 to 2014) of MODIS pantropical satellite data to quantify net annual changes in the aboveground carbon density of tropical woody live vegetation, providing direct, measurement-based evidence that the world’s tropical forests are a net carbon source of 425.2± 92.0 teragrams of carbon per year (Tg C year–1). This net release of carbon consists of losses of 861.7 ± 80.2 Tg C year–1 and gains of 436.5 ± 31.0 Tg C year–1. Gains result from forest growth; losses result from deforestation and from reductions in carbon density within standing forests (degradation or disturbance), with the latter accounting for 68.9% of overall losses.