Comparing the high-quality oxygen climatology from the World Ocean Circulation Experiment to earlier data we reveal near-global decreases in oxygen levels in the upper ocean between the 1970s and the 1990s. This globally averaged oxygen decrease is −0.93 ± 0.23μmol l−1, which is equivalent to annual oxygen losses of −0.55 ± 0.13 × 1014 mol yr−1(100–1000 m). The strongest decreases in oxygen occur in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres, near regions where there is strong water renewal and exchange between the ocean interior and surface waters. Approximately 15% of global oxygen decrease can be explained by a warmer mixed-layer reducing the capacity of water to store oxygen, while the remainder is consistent with an overall decrease in the exchange between surface waters and the ocean interior. Here we suggest that this reduction in water mass renewal rates on a global scale is a consequence of increased stratification caused by warmer surface waters. These observations support climate model simulations of oxygen change under global warming scenarios.