Coral reefs are generally considered to be the most biologically productive of all marine ecosystems, but in recent times these vulnerable aquatic resources have been subject to unusual degradation. The general decline in reefs has been greatly accelerated by mass bleaching in which corals whiten en masse and often fail to recover. Empirical evidence indicates a coral reef bleaching cycle in which major bleaching episodes are synchronized with El Niño events that occur every 3–4 years on average. By heating vast areas of the Pacific Ocean, and affecting the Indian and Atlantic Oceans as well, El Niño causes widespread damage to reefs largely because corals are very sensitive to temperature changes. However, mass bleaching events were rarely observed before the 1970s and their abrupt appearance two decades ago remains an enigma. Here we propose a new explanation for the sudden occurrence of mass bleaching and show that it may be a response to the relative increase in El Niño experienced over the last two decades.