The annual cycle in the Earth's surface temperature is extremely large-comparable in magnitude to the glacial-interglacial cycles over most of the planet. Trends in the phase and the amplitude of the annual cycle have been observed, but the causes and significance of these changes remain poorly understood-in part because we lack an understanding of the natural variability. Here we show that the phase of the annual cycle of surface temperature over extratropical land shifted towards earlier seasons by 1.7 days between 1954 and 2007; this change is highly anomalous with respect to earlier variations, which we interpret as being indicative of the natural range. Significant changes in the amplitude of the annual cycle are also observed between 1954 and 2007. These shifts in the annual cycles appear to be related, in part, to changes in the northern annular mode of climate variability, although the land phase shift is significantly larger than that predicted by trends in the northern annular mode alone. Few of the climate models presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reproduce the observed decrease in amplitude and none reproduce the shift towards earlier seasons.