Carbon uptake by the oceans and by the terrestrial biosphere can be partitioned using changes in the (12)C/(13)C isotopic ratio (delta(13)C) of atmospheric carbon dioxide, because terrestrial photosynthesis strongly discriminates against (13)CO(2), whereas ocean uptake does not. This approach depends on accurate estimates of the carbon isotopic discrimination of terrestrial photosynthesis (Delta; ref. 5) at large regional scales, yet terrestrial ecosystem heterogeneity makes such estimates problematic. Here we show that ablated plant wax compounds in continental air masses can be used to estimate Delta over large spatial scales and at less than monthly temporal resolution. We measured plant waxes in continental air masses advected to Bermuda, which are mainly of North American origin, and used the wax isotopic composition to estimate Delta simply. Our estimates indicate a large (5 6 per thousand) seasonal variation in Delta of the temperate North American biosphere, with maximum discrimination occurring in late spring, coincident with the onset of production. We suggest that the observed seasonality arises from several factors, including seasonal shifts in the proportions of production by C(3) and C(4) plants, and environmentally controlled adjustments in the photosynthetic discrimination of C(3)-plant-dominated ecosystems.