Temperature variability was studied on tropical reefs off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea using remote sensing from Aqua and Terra satellites. Cross-shore gradients in sea surface temperature (SST) were observed, including cold fronts (colder inshore) during winter and warm fronts (warmer inshore) during summer. Fronts persisted over synoptic and seasonal time-scales and had a periodic annual cycle over a 10-year time-series. Measurements of cross-shore SST variability were conducted at the scale of tens of kilometres, which encompassed temperature over shallow tropical reef complexes and the continental slope. Two tropical reefs that had similar reef geomorphology and offshore continental slope topography had identical cold fronts, although they were separated by 100 km along the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Satellite SST gradients across contours of topography of tropical reefs can be used as an index to flag areas potentially exposed to temperature stress. © 2011 International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.