Data on the distribution of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2) were obtained during a cruise in the North Sea during late summer 2001. A 1° by 1° grid of 97 stations was sampled for DIC while the pCO2 was measured continuously between the stations. The surface distributions of these two parameters show a clear boundary located around 54°N. South of this boundary the DIC and pCO2 range from 2070 to 2130 µmol kg–1 and 290 to 490 ppm, respectively, whereas in the northern North Sea, values range between 1970 and 2070 µmol kg–1 and 190 to 350 ppm, respectively. The vertical profiles measured in the two different areas show that the mixing regime of the water column is the major factor determining the surface distributions. The entirely mixed water column of the southern North Sea is heterotrophic, whereas the surface layer of the stratified water column in the northern North Sea is autotrophic. The application of different formulations for the calculation of the CO2 air–sea fluxes shows that the southern North Sea acts as a source of CO2 for the atmosphere within a range of +0.8 to +1.7 mmol m–2 day–1, whereas the northern North Sea absorbs CO2 within a range of –2.4 to –3.8 mmol m–2 day–1 in late summer. The North Sea as a whole acts as a sink of atmospheric CO2 of –1.5 to –2.2 mmol m–2 day–1 during late summer. Compared to the Baltic and the East China Seas at the same period of the year, the North Sea acts a weak sink of atmospheric CO2. The anticlockwise circulation and the short residence time of the water in the North Sea lead to a rapid transport of the atmospheric CO2 to the deeper layer of the North Atlantic Ocean. Thus, in late summer, the North Sea exports 2.2×10^12 g C month–1 to the North Atlantic Ocean via the Norwegian trench, and, at the same period, absorbs from the atmosphere a quantity of CO2 (0.4×10^12 g C month–1) equal to 15% of that export, which makes the North Sea a continental shelf pump of CO2.