Terrestrial ecosystem processes, and the associated vegetation carbon dynamics, respond differently to hydrometeorological variability across timescales, and so does our scientific understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Long-term variability of the terrestrial carbon cycle is not yet well constrained and the resulting climate-biosphere feedbacks are highly uncertain. Here we present a comprehensive overview of hydrometeorological and ecosystem variability from hourly to decadal timescales integrating multiple in situ and remote-sensing datasets characterizing extra-tropical forest sites. We find that ecosystem variability at all sites is confined within a hydrometeorological envelope across sites and timescales. Furthermore, ecosystem variability demonstrates long-term persistence, highlighting ecological memory and slow ecosystem recovery rates after disturbances. However, simulation results with state-of-the-art process-based models do not reflect this long-term persistent behaviour in ecosystem functioning. Accordingly, we develop a cross-time-scale stochastic framework that captures hydrometeorological and ecosystem variability. Our analysis offers a perspective for terrestrial ecosystem modelling and paves the way for new model-data integration opportunities in Earth system sciences. © 2017 The Author(s).