We study the effect of a superficial layer overlying a half-space on the surface displacements caused by uniform slipping of a dip-slip normal rectangular fault. We compute static coseismic displacements using a 3-D analytical code for different characteristics of the layered medium, different fault geometries and different configurations of bench marks to simulate different kinds of geodetic data (GPS, Synthetic Aperture Radar, and levellings). We perform both joint and separate inversions of the three components of synthetic displacement without constraining fault parameters, apart from strike and rake, and using a non-linear global inversion technique under the assumption of homogeneous half-space. Differences between synthetic displacements computed in the presence of the superficial soft layer and in a homogeneous half-space do not show a simple regular behaviour, even if a few features can be identified. Consequently, also retrieved parameters of the homogeneous equivalent fault obtained by unconstrained inversion of surface displacements do not show a simple regular behaviour. We point out that the presence of a superficial layer may lead to misestimating several fault parameters both using joint and separate inversions of the three components of synthetic displacement and that the effects of the presence of the superficial layer can change whether all fault parameters are left free in the inversions or not. In the inversion of any kind of coseismic geodetic data, fault size and slip can be largely misestimated, but the product (fault length) × (fault width) × slip, which is proportional to the seismic moment for a given rigidity modulus, is often well determined (within a few per cent).
Because inversion of coseismic geodetic data assuming a layered medium is impracticable, we suggest that only a case-to-case study involving some kind of recursive determination of fault parameters through data correction seems to give the proper approach when layering is important.