Polyacrylonitrile-based carbon fibers with different graphite degrees were oxidative ablated at 500 and 600 °C in air. By Thermal gravimetric (TG), Raman spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and SEM, the mass loss, microstructure, and surface morphology of carbon fibers were investigated. The mass loss of carbon fiber increases linearly with increasing oxidative ablated time under 500 and 600 °C. The carbon fiber with higher graphite degree shows higher oxidative resistance, and the surface roughness increases gradually because of chemical ablation during the whole oxidation. A gloss morphology appears on the surface primarily because of physical denudation for carbon fibers with lower graphite degree and then burn off according to carbon and oxygen reaction. The crystallite size (La) decreases significantly, while interlayer spacing(d002) remains nearly unchanged. SEM observation suggests the two kinds of ablation mechanisms for carbon fibers with different graphite degrees indicating that CC band in sp3 hybridization prefers to be attacked by oxygen molecule more than that in sp2 hybridization during oxidation ablation in air. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.