Urban heat island is among the most evident aspects of human impacts on the earth system. Here we assess the diurnal and seasonal variation of surface urban heat island intensity (SUHII) defined as the surface temperature difference between urban area and suburban area measured from the MODIS. Differences in SUHII are analyzed across 419 global big cities, and we assess several potential biophysical and socio-economic driving factors. Across the big cities, we show that the average annual daytime SUHII (1.5 ± 1.2 °C) is higher than the annual nighttime SUHII (1.1 ± 0.5 °C) (P < 0.001). But no correlation is found between daytime and nighttime SUHII across big cities (P = 0.84), suggesting different driving mechanisms between day and night. The distribution of nighttime SUHII correlates positively with the difference in albedo and nighttime light between urban area and suburban area, while the distribution of daytime SUHII correlates negatively across cities with the difference of vegetation cover and activity between urban and suburban areas. Our results emphasize the key role of vegetation feedbacks in attenuating SUHII of big cities during the day, in particular during the growing season, further highlighting that increasing urban vegetation cover could be one effective way to mitigate the urban heat island effect.