Vegetation plays a very important role of carbon (C) sinks in the global C cycle. With its complex terrain and diverse vegetation types, the Lancang River Basin (LRB) of southwest China has huge C storage capacity. Therefore, understanding the spatial variations and controlling mechanisms of vegetation C storage is important to understand the regional C cycle. In this study, data from a forest inventory and field plots were used to estimate and map vegetation C storage distribution in the LRB, to qualify the quantitative relationships between vegetation C density and altitude at sublot and township scale, and a linear model or polynomial model was used to identify the relationship between C density and altitude at two spatial scales and two statistical scales. The results showed that a total of 300.32 Tg C was stored in the LRB, an important C sink in China. The majority of C storage was contributed by forests, notably oaks. The vegetation C storage exhibited nonlinear variation with latitudinal gradients. Altitude had tremendous influences on spatial patterns of vegetation C storage of three geomorphological types in the LRB. C storage decreased with increasing altitude at both town and sublot scales in the flat river valley (FRV) region and the mid-low mountains gorge (MMG) region, and first increased then decreased in the alpine gorge (AG) region. This revealed that, in southwest China, altitude changes the latitudinal patterns of vegetation C storage; especially in the AG area, C density in the mid-altitude (3100 m) area was higher than that of adjacent areas.
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