• coral reefs;
  • sea surface temperature;
  • tropical oceans;
  • warming

[1] Changes in tropical sea surface temperature (SST) are examined over the period 1950–2011 during which global average temperature warmed by 0.4°C. Average tropical SST is warming about 70% of the global average rate. Spatially, significant warming between the two time periods, 1950–1980 and 1981–2011, has occurred across 65% of the tropical oceans. Coral reef ecosystems occupy 10% of the tropical oceans, typically in regions of warmer (+1.8°C) and less variable SST (80% of months within 3.3°C range) compared to non-reef areas (80% of months within 7.0°C range). SST is a primary controlling factor of coral reef distribution and coral reef organisms have already shown their sensitivity to the relatively small amount of warming observed so far through, for example, more frequent coral bleaching events and outbreaks of coral disease. Experimental evidence is also emerging of possible thermal thresholds in the range 30°C–32°C for some physiological processes of coral reef organisms. Relatively small changes in SST have already resulted in quite large differences in SST distribution with a maximum ‘hot spot’ of change in the near-equatorial Indo-Pacific which encompasses both the Indo-Pacific warm pools and the center of coral reef biodiversity. Identification of this hot spot of SST change is not new but this study highlights its significance with respect to tropical coral reef ecosystems. Given the modest amount of warming to date, changes in SST distribution are of particular concern for coral reefs given additional local anthropogenic stresses on many reefs and ongoing ocean acidification likely to increasingly compromise coral reef processes.