Coral bleaching is the detrimental expulsion of algal symbionts from their cnidarian hosts, and predominantly occurs when corals are exposed to thermal stress. The incidence and severity of bleaching is often spatially heterogeneous within reef-scales (<1 km), and is therefore not predictable using conventional remote sensing products. Here, we systematically assess the relationship between in situ measurements of 20 environmental variables, along with seven remotely sensed SST thermal stress metrics, and 81 observed bleaching events at coral reef locations spanning five major reef regions globally. We find that high-frequency temperature variability (i.e., daily temperature range) was the most influential factor in predicting bleaching prevalence and had a mitigating effect, such that a 1 °C increase in daily temperature range would reduce the odds of more severe bleaching by a factor of 33. Our findings suggest that reefs with greater high-frequency temperature variability may represent particularly important opportunities to conserve coral ecosystems against the major threat posed by warming ocean temperatures.