Increasing human populations around the global coastline have caused extensive loss, degradation and fragmentation of coastal ecosystems, threatening the delivery of important ecosystem services¹. As a result, alarming losses of mangrove, coral reef, seagrass, kelp forest and coastal marsh ecosystems have occurred1–6. However, owing to the difficulty of mapping intertidal areas globally, the distribution and status of tidal flats—one of the most extensive coastal ecosystems—remain unknown⁷. Here we present an analysis of over 700,000 satellite images that maps the global extent of and change in tidal flats over the course of 33 years (1984–2016). We find that tidal flats, defined as sand, rock or mud flats that undergo regular tidal inundation⁷, occupy at least 127,921 km² (124,286–131,821 km², 95% confidence interval). About 70% of the global extent of tidal flats is found in three continents (Asia (44% of total), North America (15.5% of total) and South America (11% of total)), with 49.2% being concentrated in just eight countries (Indonesia, China, Australia, the United States, Canada, India, Brazil and Myanmar). For regions with sufficient data to develop a consistent multi-decadal time series—which included East Asia, the Middle East and North America—we estimate that 16.02% (15.62–16.47%, 95% confidence interval) of tidal flats were lost between 1984 and 2016. Extensive degradation from coastal development¹, reduced sediment delivery from major rivers8,9, sinking of riverine deltas8,10, increased coastal erosion and sea-level rise¹¹ signal a continuing negative trajectory for tidal flat ecosystems around the world. Our high-spatial-resolution dataset delivers global maps of tidal flats, which substantially advances our understanding of the distribution, trajectory and status of these poorly known coastal ecosystems.