The global impacts of river floods are substantial and rising. Effective adaptation to the increasing risks requires an in-depth understanding of the physical and socioeconomic drivers of risk. Whereas the modeling of flood hazard and exposure has improved greatly, compelling evidence on spatiotemporal patterns in vulnerability of societies around the world is still lacking. Due to this knowledge gap, the effects of vulnerability on global flood risk are not fully understood, and future projections of fatalities and losses available today are based on simplistic assumptions or do not include vulnerability. We show for the first time (to our knowledge) that trends and fluctuations in vulnerability to river floods around the world can be estimated by dynamic high-resolution modeling of flood hazard and exposure. We find that rising per-capita income coincided with a global decline in vulnerability between 1980 and 2010, which is reflected in decreasing mortality and losses as a share of the people and gross domestic product exposed to inundation. The results also demonstrate that vulnerability levels in low- and high-income countries have been converging, due to a relatively strong trend of vulnerability reduction in developing countries. Finally, we present projections of flood losses and fatalities under 100 individual scenario and model combinations, and three possible global vulnerability scenarios. The projections emphasize that materialized flood risk largely results from human behavior and that future risk increases can be largely contained using effective disaster risk reduction strategies.