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Massive aurora borealis forecast this week

Doug O'Harra
Northern lights over Fairbanks in fall 2010.
Stephen Nowers photo

Check the northern skies after dark tonight if you're looking to be dazzled. And keep checking.

A sunspot spot wider than the planet Jupiter just blasted out the largest solar flare seen in four years, spewing a tsunami of charged particles hurtling toward Earth, according to a report on Spaceweather.com.

Once the particles impact the home planet's magnetic field beginning about 6 p.m. AST Wednesday, they will interact with ions of the upper atmosphere and start to produce shimmering bands of northern lights. Skies over the entire region may light up in one of the season's most spectacular displays, with the Geophysical Institute's official aurora forecast for Feb. 16-17 rated "Active" even as far south as Anchorage.

The Anchorage forecast office of the U.S. Weather Service also issued an alert for a "significant geomagnetic storm" through Saturday.

The culprit, Sunspot 1158, appeared less than a week ago. Over five days, it erupted across the surface of the sun like an outbreak of angry lesions. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory released an amazing video of its development.

Looks like the new solar cycle is beginning to ramp up. The sun emitted its first X-class flare in more than four years on February 14 at 4:56 p.m. AST the observatory posted today -- along with a seething, orange video of the flare spitting itself into space.

X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.