The buoyancy flux at the air/sea interface plays a key role in water mass transformation and mixing as it modifies surface water density and in turn drives overturning and enhances stratification. It is the interplay of these two independent heat and freshwater buoyancy flux components that is of central importance when analysing mechanisms of the ocean/atmosphere interaction. Here, a diagnostic quantity (ΘB) is presented that allows to capture the relative contribution of both components on the buoyancy flux in one single quantity. Using NCEP reanalysis of heat and freshwater fluxes (1948–2009) demonstrates that ΘB is a convenient tool to analyse both the temporal and spatial variability of their corresponding buoyancy fluxes. For the global ocean the areal extent of buoyancy gain and loss regions changed by 10%, with the largest extent of buoyancy gain during the 1970–1990 period. In the subpolar North Atlantic, and likewise in the South Pacific, decadal variability in freshwater flux is pronounced and, for the latter region, takes control over the total buoyancy flux since the 1980s. Some of the areal extent time series show a significant correlation with large-scale climate indices.