To investigate forest carbon sequestration and its role in addressing global climatic change, it is important to assess carbon emissions caused by major disturbances from forest ecosystems to the atmosphere. Based on forestry statistics on the occurrence of each disturbance and acceptable assumptions on the process and proportion of biomass carbon transferred to other pools due to each disturbance, this paper estimates the direct carbon emission from Chinese forest vegetation caused by three major disturbances, that is, wood harvesting, fire, and DPR, from 1990 to 2009. Results showed that over the past two decades, Chinese forests have been disturbed rather intensively by wood harvesting, fires, and DPR, with clear upward occurrence trends of the three disturbances in the early 21st century. As a result, the average annual carbon emissions caused by wood harvesting, fires, and DPR were 34.25 Tg, 1.61 Tg, and 4.29 Tg, respectively, during 1990–2009. The aggregate annual carbon emission due to these three major disturbances was 40.15 Tg during 1990–2009, which was 30.79 Tg during 1990–1999 and 49.51 Tg during 2000–2009. According to the analysis of carbon emissions from different forest regions, there were obvious regional characteristics of the average annual carbon emission caused by each disturbance. However, it was difficult to identify clear cause and effect relationships among disturbances to explain the spatial variation of carbon emissions from forest vegetation in China. Disturbances have significant influences on carbon balance of forest ecosystems in China. This finding suggests the opportunities for increasing forest carbon sequestration by disturbance-aimed sustainable long-term management of forest resources, as well as the necessity of considering the role of major disturbances in carbon budget models for forest ecosystems or terrestrial ecosystems.
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