The soils of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau store a large amount of organic carbon, but the magnitude, spatial patterns and environmental controls of the storage are little investigated. In this study, using data of soil organic carbon (SOC) in 405 profiles collected from 135 sites across the plateau and a satellite-based dataset of enhanced vegetation index (EVI) during 2001–2004, we estimated storage and spatial patterns of SOC in the alpine grasslands. We also explored the relationships between SOC density (soil carbon storage per area) and climatic variables and soil texture. Our results indicated that SOC storage in the top 1 m in the alpine grasslands was estimated at 7.4 Pg C (1 Pg=1015 g), with an average density of 6.5 kg m−2. The density of SOC decreased from the southeastern to the northwestern areas, corresponding to the precipitation gradient. The SOC density increased significantly with soil moisture, clay and silt content, but weakly with mean annual temperature. These variables could together explain about 72% of total variation in SOC density, of which 54% was attributed to soil moisture, suggesting a key role of soil moisture in shaping spatial patterns of SOC density in the alpine grasslands.