A poor understanding of the fraction of global plant biomass occurring belowground as roots limits our understanding of present and future ecosystem function and carbon pools. Here we create a database of root-mass fractions (RMFs), an index of plant below- versus aboveground biomass distributions, and generate quantitative, spatially explicit global maps of RMFs in trees, shrubs and grasses. Our analyses reveal large gradients in RMFs both across and within vegetation types that can be attributed to resource availability. High RMFs occur in cold and dry ecosystems, while low RMFs dominate in warm and wet regions. Across all vegetation types, the directional effect of temperature on RMFs depends on water availability, suggesting feedbacks between heat, water and nutrient supply. By integrating our RMF maps with existing aboveground plant biomass information, we estimate that in forests, shrublands and grasslands, respectively, 22%, 47% and 67% of plant biomass exists belowground, with a total global belowground fraction of 24% (20–28%), that is, 113 (90–135) Gt carbon. By documenting the environmental correlates of root biomass allocation, our results can inform model projections of global vegetation dynamics under current and future climate scenarios.