EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It has been one of the warmest starts to January on record in West Michigan. Grand Rapids has yet to see a day with a high temperature below normal.

Across the five Great Lakes, ice coverage is 4.5%. Typically at this point in January, ice coverage should be closer to 25%.

“Ice has started later, ice has not lasted as long, and coverage has been down quite a bit,” said Richard Rood, Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments co-principal investigator and University of Michigan professor of climate and space sciences and engineering.

Rood said the lack of ice on the Great Lakes has become more frequent since the winter of 1997-1998, with the amount of coverage on a slow decline. He explained the trend is primarily caused by a slowly warming climate along with changing and more extreme weather events. He doesn’t foresee a change.

“We could essentially have ice-free seasons, primarily away from the shorelines,” he said.

While ice-free lakes may not seem like a problem on the surface, they could have large effects on ecosystems or receding shorelines. In West Michigan, lake-effect snow could become prolonged and more intense without ice shielding the water.

For winter sportsmen, the ice fishing season could become limited.

“They come in and the first thing they say is, ‘We need ice,'” Joe Koperski, a sales associate at Al & Bob’s Sports, said of the fishermen coming into the store south of Wyoming.

Business at Al & Bob’s has been slower than normal the last few weeks, with fewer customers looking for ice fishing gear.

“To get to ice right now where it’s safe enough to fish, you’d have to go up to Lake Cadillac or (neighboring) Lake Mitchell. That’s about as far south as you can get,” Koperski said.

There is some hope for local fishermen. Ice formation usually increases during the month of February.

The long-range temperature outlook indicates a cool start to February.

With an upcoming cool down and active pattern settling in, local lakes should have a better chance to freeze over.