Ecosystems are widely interconnected by spatial flows of material, but the overall importance of these flows relative to local ecosystem functioning remains unclear. Here we provide a quantitative synthesis on spatial flows of carbon connecting ecosystems worldwide. Cross-ecosystem flows range over eight orders of magnitude, bringing between 10−3 and 105 gC m−2 year−1 to recipient ecosystems. Magnitudes are similar to local fluxes in freshwater and benthic ecosystems, but two to three orders of magnitude lower in terrestrial systems, demonstrating different dependencies on spatial flows among ecosystem types. The strong spatial couplings also indicate that ecosystems are vulnerable to alterations of cross-ecosystem flows. Thus, a reconsideration of ecosystem functioning, including a spatial perspective, is urgently needed.