Epidemiological theory suggests that pathogens will not cause host extinctions because agents of disease should fade out when the host population is driven below a threshold density. Nevertheless, infectious diseases have threatened species with extinction on local scales by maintaining high incidence and the ability to spread efficiently even as host populations decline. Intertidal black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii), but not other abalone species, went extinct locally throughout much of southern California following the emergence of a Rickettsiales-like pathogen in the mid-1980s. The rickettsial disease, a condition known as withering syndrome (WS), and associated mortality occur at elevated water temperatures. We measured abalone body temperatures in the field and experimentally manipulated intertidal environmental conditions in the laboratory, testing the influence of mean temperature and daily temperature variability on key epizootiological processes of WS. Daily temperature variability increased the susceptibility of black abalone to infection, but disease expression occurred only at warm water temperatures and was independent of temperature variability. These results imply that high thermal variation of the marine intertidal zone allows the pathogen to readily infect black abalone, but infected individuals remain asymptomatic until water temperatures periodically exceed thresholds modulating WS. Mass mortalities can therefore occur before pathogen transmission is limited by density-dependent factors.