The secrets of El Niño, one of the most mysterious and destructive weather systems, could be unlocked by hundreds of thousands of ancient clay tablets now feared lost or damaged in the chaos of Iraq.
Researchers believe the tablets, written using a cuneiform text, one of the earliest types of writing, form the world's oldest records of climate change and could give vital clues to understanding El Niño and global warming.
Academics are demanding that ministers act to protect the unique cultural records, which have chronicled agriculture and other areas of everyday life in the Near East for nearly 5,000 years.
The fear is that the tablets and other priceless records are being plundered from sites across the country in the aftermath of war. The tablets record the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian empires, which once dominated the land now divided between Iraq, Iran and Syria. They outline the catastrophic collapse of the city of Ur more than 4,000 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died in a disastrous series of flash floods and severe droughts that may have lasted up to 30 years.
Dr Richard Grove, research director at the Center for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex, believes a series of dramatic changes in ocean currents and global winds was responsible for the collapse of the civilization. His controversial theory suggests that the El Niño he believes contributed to the fall of the Sumerian and Akkadian empires was one of the most severe of the past 5,000 years, and may have vital lessons for climatologists today.
Dr Grove said: "What happened was like a nuclear explosion. The cuneiform tablets of Iraq record in detail the almost complete collapse of pre-industrial agrarian societies due to extreme climate events lasting up to 10 to 20 years and possibly longer."
The tablets, known as the Lamentations of Ur, tell of the city's decline in about 2200BC. Thousands of other clay tablets, many the size of cigarette packets, form an everyday record of tithes paid to temples in the form of grain and livestock. About 80,000 tablets are thought to have survived looting at Baghdad's antiquities museum. But scholars fear thousands more are being plundered around the country.
Some 130,000 tablets are also housed at the British Museum in London. Dr Irving Finkel, of the department of the Near East, said: "We have had alarming reports of tablets being taken out of the ground. The record is very much under threat.
"Nothing is being taken from the Iraqi museum now, but sites around the country are incredibly vulnerable. There is a very urgent need for an authority to crack down on that."
The veteran Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell has raised the fate of the Sumerian archives in the Commons and urged ministers to intervene to protect the tablets from harm.
The antiquities museum, ransacked by looters as Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled, will reopen next month after many of the treasures feared lost were found stashed in secret vaults around the city.
Donny George, the museum's research director, said yesterday that among the items on show would be the Treasure of Nimrud, a priceless set of golden Assyrian jewelry studded with gems that has been displayed only once, briefly, in the past 3,000 years.
The treasure was recovered last week from flooded vaults below the gutted shell of the city's looted central bank.
Besides the Nimrud artifacts, American investigators also recovered thousands of items from the museum's main exhibition collection last week when employees led them to a secret vault in Baghdad. The items had been taken there for safekeeping before the US-led invasion of Iraq.
American investigators said about 3,000 museum pieces were still missing, mostly not of exhibition quality.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd