The terrestrial carbon sink slows the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by absorbing roughly 30% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, but varies greatly from year to year. The resulting variations in the atmospheric CO2 growth rate (CGR) have been related to tropical temperature and water availability. The apparent sensitivity of CGR to tropical temperature (γTCGRγCGRT) has changed markedly over the past six decades, however, the drivers of the observation to date remains unidentified. Here, we use atmospheric observations, multiple global vegetation models and machine learning products to analyze the cause of the sensitivity change. We found that a threefold increase in γTCGRγCGRT emerged due to the long-term changes in the magnitude of CGR variability (i.e., indicated by one standard deviation of CGR; STDCGR), which increased 34.7% from 1960-1979 to 1985-2004 and subsequently decreased 14.4% in 1997-2016. We found a close relationship (r2 = 0.75, p < 0.01) between STDCGR and the tropical vegetated area (23°S – 23°N) affected by extreme droughts, which influenced 6-9% of the tropical vegetated surface. A 1% increase in the tropical area affected by extreme droughts led to about 0.14 Pg C yr−1 increase in STDCGR. The historical changes in STDCGR were dominated by extreme drought-affected areas in tropical Africa and Asia, and semi-arid ecosystems. The outsized influence of extreme droughts over a small fraction of vegetated surface amplified the interannual variability in CGR and explained the observed long-term dynamics of γTCGRγCGRT.