The oceans are a global reservoir and redistribution agent for several important constituents of the Earth's climate system, among them heat, fresh water and carbon dioxide. Whereas these constituents are actively exchanged with the atmosphere, salt is a component that is approximately conserved in the ocean. The distribution of salinity in the ocean is widely measured, and can therefore be used to diagnose rates of surface freshwater fluxes, freshwater transport and local ocean mixing--important components of climate dynamics. Here we present a comparison of salinities on a long transect (50 degrees S to 60 degrees N) through the western basins of the Atlantic Ocean between the 1950s and the 1990s. We find systematic freshening at both poleward ends contrasted with large increases of salinity pervading the upper water column at low latitudes. Our results extend a growing body of evidence indicating that shifts in the oceanic distribution of fresh and saline waters are occurring worldwide in ways that suggest links to global warming and possible changes in the hydrologic cycle of the Earth.